Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Truth and Reconciliation

Truth: John Boorman's In My Country is a terrible film, and of a particularly galling kind: a film about a manifestly important subject that botches every single avenue by which the film might also make itself important. You would think that the Western popular cinema's convention of filtering Third World suffering through the milky, lamely "enlightened" eyes of First World journalists would have gone out of style by now, the same way terms like "Third World" and "First World" should have gone out of style. But no, they're all still here, and the inherently wrong-headed device is back with a vengeance in In My Country.

Note the photo still I've reproduced here. Not only is Boorman's camera fixed on Juliette Binoche's Afrikaaner poet-journalist and Samuel L. Jackson's Washington Post reporter, when it might well be photographing some of the victims testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even within the shot, some anonymous journalist is also pointing her camera at Binoche and Jackson. This is narcissistic, neo-liberal cinema at its most relentless and, simultaneously, at its most timid. And dont'cha know, screenwriter Ann Peacock will eventually whip up a romantic plot between Binoche and Jackson—in much the way you can whip cream cheese into something airier but just as heart-clogging. Through this added cul-de-sac, the film not only divorces its focus even further away from the TRC proceedings but actually begs an analogy, however fleeting, between Binoche's confession of adulterous guilt to her husband and the tens of thousands of testimonies by Apartheid apparatchiks who mauled and despoiled their country and maimed and killed their fellow citizens. In other words, check your sense of proportion at the door.

Sure, there are plenty of scenes where formerly abused Africans (mostly black, but not all) recount the terrible kernels of their suffering under Apartheid. If you're wondering how close the movie brings us to these characters, you'll get some sense from the end credits, which bills these characters with monikers like "Crying Woman." Classy; right up there with that "Jewish Woman" whom I so fondly recall from Croupier. The dismal lighting and in-and-out sound design can be generously ascribed to what I'm sure was a paltry budget, much less than a film on this subject deserves. Benefit of the doubt is hereby extended. But for an experienced director like Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory) to edit so numbly—preserving the Scooby Doo rule that the shot must change whenever someone new is talking—is beyond comprehension. So too is the use of Hollywood's perpetual, racist, Trader Horn musical tracks of low bongos, whispered chants, and ominous, "exotic" woodwinds to communicate heart-of-darkness evil. It doesn't matter that the villain so stigmatized is, in this case, a white torturer instead of a jungle savage: In My Country is so busy using absurd sound cues, histrionic close-ups, cheap emotionalism, and stunted Western commentary to signal who's Good and who's Bad that you don't even need to listen to the TRC testimonies to know what the movie wishes you to feel. It's an especially low point in ersatz "political" cinema when the most extraneous ingredient of a film about the Truth and Reconciliation hearings are the hearings themselves.

The one sleight-of-hand the movie almost pulls off concerns another of its cringe-inducing stock characters: ever hear the one about the wide-grinning black man who lives for whiskey and dance, and who drives white people around until they ultimately thank him with the gift of a new flask? In the final moments of In My Country, the execrable surface gets ripped off this character, and we're forced to ask some questions about him, which is utterly novel in the context of this determinedly one-dimensional film. Of course, the minute this fruitful twist arrives, the character dies, and five minutes later, the movie ends, amidst some meaningless voiceover pablum about South Africa not being a country but a place inside our hearts (yep, all of us).

Reconciliation: So, hold what was good about that one scene, skip In My Country (whose meager box-office implies that you already did skip it), and venture instead to the library for the script of Tug Yourgrau's The Song of Jacob Zulu, which played on Broadway in 1993. You may have forgotten this work, lost as the play eventually was beneath the concurrent hype for Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Yourgrau's play, written while Apartheid was in its final death throes, tells an infinitely tougher and richer story than Boorman does. The play centers around Jacob Zulu, a fictionalized version of a real black South African teenager who, in concert with radical guerrillas of the ANC, bombed a travel agency in 1985 and was put on trial for killing six people. Jacob's trial offers the pivot and main reference-point for the narrative, but the play interpolates scenes from his childhood, his coming into consciousness of race, racism, and resistance, his fraught encounters with South African police, and the seemingly impossible choices that a child who grows up this way must face.

The Song of Jacob Zulu neither canonizes Jacob as a martyr nor pretends that his crime was inexplicable. Originally commissioned by Chicago's justly famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the play navigates its way around the Scylla and Charybdis of faux-liberal apologism and blind vilification, largely through the inspired use of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the renowned Zulu a capella group. Like a Euripidean chorus, the Ladysmith singers extol, denounce, exhort, lament, warn, assuage, and remember Jacob throughout the play. Yourgrau consulted with Ladysmith's key members throughout the writing, so their involvement is fully organic to both the story and the mode of presentation.

Even on the page, the Tony-nominated Jacob Zulu is an impressively theatrical feat as well as an especially enlightened, notably uncompromised statement about the moral briar-patches engendered by racist regimes. Sadly, it wasn't just the Angels hoopla that killed Jacob at the New York box office; opening just weeks after the first World Trade Center bombing in '93, the play made everyone nervous for the wrong reasons. A pity, that. But thank goodness artists still exist who pose the questions we need to ask, cutting to the heart of germane issues, even if we don't always thank them for these gifts or recognize them when they're in front of us. And thank goodness these artists keep searching for the truth even as dumb Hollywood machinery keeps churning out pap that avoids most of the issues and smothers the ones it even half-raises.

P.S.: There may be hope for Hollywood yet. The TRC drama Red Dust, starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Melinda and Melinda) has been doing well enough on the festival circuit. After Swank's second Oscar win, it seems hard to imagine the film won't see the (commercial) light of day eventually. Even better, USA Today reports that Morgan Freeman is shepherding an upcoming project where he will play Nelson Mandela—perfect casting if I've ever heard it. No title or start date yet, but it's an inspiring idea (and explains, too, the bank-rolling project choices of The Big Bounce and Unleashed, et al.)

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