The opening of John Boorman's new film In My Country crackles with almost unimaginable drama. The setting is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which in 1996 traveled around the country investigating human rights violations that took place during 34 years of Apartheid.
And investigating may be too active a verb. The hearings, chaired in real life by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, simply allowed black victims - most often the families of the dead - to confront the white perpetrators in person. Perpetrators who we imagine could only be drawn to these hearings by the promise of amnesty if the accused can pass the blame up the ladder of the Apartheid government. These confrontations take place in tiny town halls, without the spin of prosecution and defense attorneys. They are breathtaking both for their raw emotion and genuine yearning for answers. The new government of Nelson Mandela, it seems, believes in absolving transgressions rather than seeking retribution. And we are free to find this approach both remarkably wise and sweetly naive.
Boorman has based the film on the book “Country of My Skull” by Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog, who covered the hearings for South African radio and NPR. Krog is given the name Anna Malan and played by Juliette Binoche. We meet her as she is leaving her parents' cattle ranch under their futile protest. As dangerous as the ranch has become, Mother and Father are more fearful of their daughter falling under the spell of white guilt that threatens to undermine the Africaans own hard-earned pride in their country.
Independent and intellectual, Anna is still a lost lamb when she joins the international press corps covering the story. She is quickly teamed with a local sound engineer named Dumi, played with high-wattage charisma by Menzi Engabane. And if there is anything Dumi can’t do, he knows someone who can. Anna may be his cultural and professional superior, but he happily takes her under his wing.
Samuel L. Jackson enters as a Washington Post reporter who has a hard time abiding the forgiveness black Africa seems willing to grant its white oppressors. He is thrown into a confrontational relationship with Anna, the white African unwilling to be stereotyped. And then as soon as their sparks start flying, In My Country stops crackling. The story of a country's Truth and Reconciliation becomes a love story between two people removed from the actual pain and suffering of Apartheid. Boorman’s political instincts and sense of humanity are true and good. And he dealt himself Krog's book for a perspective. But at some point I found myself in a less interesting movie, and wondering if this film could have gotten made without the great beauty of Juliette Binoche and the comforting familiarity of Samuel L. Jackson. Both are fine actors tackling demanding roles, but neither is as riveting or as relevant as Dumi who disappears from the movie for long stretches of time.
Even given all the electricity allowed to escape the film, In My Country maintains enough to provide an enlightening and surprisingly hopeful journey.
© 2005 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 3/9/05
In My Country
UK/Ireland/South Africa - 2004