In the country of my father’s skull …

Caught a press screening of Country of My Skull (or, as it is known in North America, In My Country) this morning.

It’s good to see a film about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission — especially one that acknowledges the positive religious tenor of the whole thing — but whatever social or political impact this film might have had is seriously watered down by the time it spends on a rather trite love affair between two journalists, one a South African played by Juliette Binoche and the other an American played by Samuel L. Jackson. The affair itself isn’t developed beyond the most perfunctory elements, and the point of it all seems to be that “truth and reconciliation” are necessary not just on the national level, but at home, too — which is a rather banal direction in which to take this film, no matter how true that message might be. Chalk this one up as another misfire in director John Boorman’s erratic career.

As it happens, I brought my father to this screening, as I often do with films of this sort. My father grew up in Zambia and attended university in South Africa back in the ’60s, but because of his participation in anti-apartheid activities, he was given orders to leave the country the day after his 22nd birthday — and he wasn’t able to return, even for a visit, until 30 years later. (It’s weird to think of it this way, but if it hadn’t been for apartheid, I wouldn’t exist — my father left the country, followed his own recently widowed father to Canada, met my mother, and I was born, less than three years after my father had been told to leave.)

Anyway, my father e-mailed me some of his thoughts on the film some time later, and he said I could re-post them here. (Warning: There is a minor spoiler, but it doesn’t involve the Commission or the two protagonists.) So, for whatever it’s worth…

This movie was taken from the book “Country Of My Skull”, which presumably doesn’t hurry over things as much. South African writers are usually worth reading, and it would be an interesting contrast with Alan Paton’s “Too Late The Phalarope”, the book that was instrumental in my Christian conversion. The central event of that story is an Afrikaner policeman in the Orange Free State having an affair with a black woman, and being ostracized by his own culture as a result. I can’t remember all the details, but the policeman and the woman did not see each other as equals at all; as I remember it, they didn’t even speak much; but it wasn’t a rape either, because she acquiesced, and I have the impression that he would not have continued had she said no. He simply acted on a basic human instinct that overcame all his cultural conditioning, while she perhaps acted on culture — some combination of the inferior status of women in black culture and the inferior status of blacks in “his” land. Anyway, almost 50 years apart and quite different from this story!

The character Duma (or Nduma), the sound technician, struck me immediately as a former “tsotsi” or street gang survivor. So the revelation at the end that he had been a traitor to his cause was not a surprise. He would have lost his dignity early on, at the hands of the state. The amazing thing is that so many didn’t.

I loved the Afrikaans dialog. Did you notice the respect the central woman character showed to the proprietor of the “Ritz”, calling her “auntie”? This is the second movie I’ve seen in a week about Afrikaners who turn against their own system — Mom and I saw “A Dry White Season” on TV last week ( with Donald Sutherland in the lead role and Marlon Brando in a cameo as a lawyer — and both movies depicted the Afrikaners much as I remember them. They are a puzzle that I would like to solve: capable of such devotion to God and duty, polite and respectful and observing all the formalities of civilized life, but capable of violence, and even hatred, when they feel threatened. Their past has something to do with this: they had to defend themselves against both the British and the Africans to retain their right to be “een volk” (a people, a “distinct society” as we might say in Canada). I know my parents and other English-speaking Southern Africans did not think highly of the Afrikaners, but I must say that I love the Afrikaner “volk” and feel very moved by their history and pray for their future. Their challenge is to hold on to all that is good in their culture while purging it of evil. It was a hopeful sign when the last remnant of the old National Party, that had created apartheid, recently merged into the ANC! I hope the majority in S.A. makes room in its heart for this “white tribe” which is capable of great good.

I remember reading in (I think it was) one of James Michener’s books that the Afrikaners lived by the Bible, but their God was the God of the Old Testament more than of the New Testament. There’s some truth in that, especially in their past willingness to go “over the top” when retaliating to threats, in an effort to forestall any future repetition. Fortunately a new generation of Afrikaners is more “verligte” (enlightened) and hopefully the NT message is gaining acceptance.

Incidentally, one thing I did like about the film myself was the way it presented the Commission as an expression of both “African justice” and Christian compassion — you might say one had baptized and embraced the other — and the way it contrasted these things with the more vengeful “Western justice” espoused by the Jackson character. There is a scene where the Jackson character has to confront the consequences of a “Western”, as opposed to “African”, form of justice, and it isn’t quite what he expected. The film could have made a significant point there, if only it hadn’t already undermined its own best efforts.

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  • Anonymous

    “I know my parents and other English-speaking Southern Africans did not think highly of the Afrikaners”

    And then you wonder why they feel besieged and under threat?

  • Anonymous

    I never thought much of english people and now I know why – it’s their smug selfrigheousness…