A Washington Post journalist is sent to South Africa to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in which perpetrators on both sides of Apartheid are allowed to confront their victims as an act of contrition ... more »and gain amnesty.
Potentially Excellent Film Trivialized By Melodrama & Romanc
Jana L. Perskie | New York, NY USA | 09/15/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, (TRC), was a court-like body assembled in South Africa after Apartheid ended. The mandate of the commission, established under Nelson Mandela, was "to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, reparation and rehabilitation." Anybody who felt they had been a victim of violence could come forward and be heard before the Commission. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request Amnesty from prosecution. The hearings made headlines around the world and many sessions were televised on national TV.
John Boorman's political drama is set in South Africa in 1996, at the beginning of the TRC hearings. The film includes testimony which graphically describes the brutal atrocities perpetrated under the apartheid system and is extremely moving. The hearings were designed to bring a measure of domestic peace to South Africa following decades of violent, inhumane and repressive government. I believe that Boorman's goal here is to help westerners understand the African concept of "ubuntu," or justice that involves confession, forgiveness and a restoration of amity rather than mere retribution. And he does succeed on many levels. However, the movie has some major flaws which seriously distract from the inspirational story.
Anna Malan, (Juliette Binoche), a progressive Afrikaaner journalist and poet, is assigned to cover the hearings for a local radio station in Cape Town. Her commentary will also be broadcast on National Public Radio in the United States. Anna comes from a wealthy South African family with large landholdings. They have farmed here for generations. The Malan family would prefer that Anna not become involved in any activities surrounding the TRC. However, she is extremely optimistic that a deep and abiding peace will prevail, eventually, between fellow citizens, black and white. She identifies strongly with Africa, and the principle of "ubuntu."
Dumi Mkhalipi (Menzi "Ngubs" Ngubane), plays Anna's savvy black South African assistant.
Washington Post correspondent Langston Whitfield, (Samuel L. Jackson), in Cape Town to cover the events, has a much more cynical view of the proceedings. He believes the hearings represent a giant smokescreen designed to protect the whites from the consequences of their crimes. He would much rather a harsher punishment be imposed, one reflecting vengeance. After his initial, contentious discussion with Anna he begins to mellow, interpersonally anyway, and to hang out with her and Dumi. She finally makes her point that she is as African as he is, and in many ways, more so.
There is a subplot involving Whitfield's series of interviews with Colonel De Jager, (Brendan Gleeson), a member of the military in the former apartheid regime, responsible for numerous atrocities and notorious for innovative torture techniques.
The testimonies are extremely well depicted, and as I mentioned above, quite emotional. Seamus Deasy, director of photography, beautifully captures the majesty of the South African countryside. And the historical theme is perfect for adaptation into a first-class drama. So what happens? Where do things go wrong? (And they do).
Well, I'd like to know why a contrived, awkward romance was stuck right in the middle of the main storyline? Is not the drama of apartheid, plus the concept of "ubuntu," as well as actual historic testimony, great actors, unbelievable cinematography, etc., enough to create significant cinema? Did "In My Country" need the embellishment of an adulterous romance? There's not a scintilla of chemistry between Anna and Langston. Totally unnecessary and distracting filler!
And why the melodrama? There is more than enough serious, true life material to have to resort to extravagant portrayals. This kind of writing/directing trivializes rather than accentuates and dramatizes. There is one courtroom scene where Juliette Binoche, (one of my favorite actresses), goes right over the top. I felt embarrassed for her and for the lack of subtlety with which she was asked to perform. Also, I do find it difficult to believe that Anna is so shocked by the testimonies. After all, she has lived in South Africa all of her life. As an American, I knew about many of the atrocities committed during apartheid - in the 1980's. Fewer than four million Afrikkaners stood by while more than 30 million of their countrymen and women were oppressed and brutalized, simply because of the color of their skin. And Anna is shocked? She is a journalist. She must have traveled outside Africa. I am sure she read articles and books from other countries? Was there no progressive/liberal underground? Simply not credible. Anna was also, always, the only person to react with such surprise. Has she been on Mars?
I believe that most of the movie's problems lie in screenwriter Ann Peacock's adaptation of South African Antjie Krog's semi-autobiographical book, "Country of My Skull," and in John Boorman's clumsy, often heavy-handed direction.
Remember, there is an upside to my review, and it is for the movie's "plusses" that I give it 3 stars. Everyone should see it, for the history and for the knowledge it imparts. I am just reminded what a brilliant film "Hotel Rwanda" is and know that "In My Country" could have been turned into a 5 Star work of art also. The subject matter warrants it. JANA"
Upsetting and emotionally complex view of Apartheid. Great
Linda Linguvic | New York City | 09/16/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 2004 film is also called "In The Country of My Skull" and must have had a very short run at the box office because I never heard of it. And yet it stars Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche, both excellent actors. Their roles demand nuanced performances in this story set at The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after Apartheid ended. In order to keep the country from upheavals and violence, these hearings allowed people to appear before a public tribunal, confess exactly what they did, convince the tribunal that they were just following orders, and then make a public apology. These hearings were heart wrenching for all, but allowed redemption. Most of the people were forgiven or given light jail sentences. But then there were some whose crimes went way beyond the limits that could be pardoned.
The film, based on a memoir by a journalist, is fictionalized for greater impact. Samuel L. Jackson is cast as a Washington Post reporter who is covering the story. Juliette Binoche is an Afrikaner who does a local daily radio broadcast. Both are married. And yet a strong bond forms between these too, leading to a romance. Their roles call for emotional complexity. And both of them succeed magnificently, seeming to enter the very core of their characters as they meet both victims and victimizers and grasp the reality of the horror. I applaud their performances and I applaud the screenplay. I was totally involved and also very sad. The film presented some upsetting truths. And, as when any truth is probed this deeply, there are no easy answers.
I didn't cry real tears. It was not that kind of film. Rather I felt it deep inside and now, several weeks later, I am still thinking about it.
A big bonus on the DVD was the many interviews with the director, the stars and the writer. Each of them talked about how they had to look at themselves and their own lives and come to terms with some harsh truths about their own ethnic backgrounds. I came away thinking of my own life in this context.
This is perhaps the most worthwhile film I've seen this year. It's not pleasant to watch. You won't come away with any answers and you won't be smiling. And you won't understand any more than you do now. But your perception will surely be broadened. And you just might see a light brought to the dark side of human nature through the act of forgiveness.
Definitely recommended. But not for the faint of heart.
Complex and rewarding.
Wendell | Edmonston | 11/23/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I'm one who enjoyed this movie. I haven't always been a John Boorman fan. He's sort of hit or miss with me, and it often feels that his politics highjacks the story and pushes the characters in certain ways. I didn't feel this way about this film, though.
I did find the Truth and Reconcilation testimonies to be convincing and heartrending. They give you enough of the horrors of Apartheid without making the entire movie nothing more than a catalog of crimes.
I like the relationships between Binoche's and Jackson's characters. It felt real to me, and interesting that Boorman deals maturely with infidelity. He doesn't make an overt issue of it, but we as viewers certainly know that both these characters are married with children. Still, however, they're put together and surrounded by such emotive material that it makes sense they should be drawn together.
Don't go away from some of the earlier reviews thinking this is a feel-good movie in which whites come off looking good. They don't. Binoche's character is an activist, yes, but her father's a racist and her brother, it turns out, was involved in incredible atrocities. This movie is far from simple. Just the opposite, it does honor to a complex issue that taints all the players."
G. Jennings | Outside | 07/30/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This film is very well portrayed. I haven't read "Country of My Skull" to compare how truthful the movie is to Antjie Krog's depiction, but both Jackson and Binoche have done a superb job representing their characters. Director John Boorman stated that Samuel Jackson had to play a much more emotional role in this film than what he was used to. This becomes evident in his character. We're used to Samuel Jackson playing the cool walking, sharp-talking bad-ass. In this role, a vulnerable more complex side comes out. Binoche was on target, as usual, and seemless with her South African accent. I thought this film was beautifully done with the right emotional balance of forgiveness, anger, shame and happiness. Too much melodrama and graphic imagery would have pushed the film over the edge and become cliche. It's good for American audiences to break away from the usual Hollywood formula and see other angles of cinema.
The South African actors depicted in the movie are just as lively as the South Africans I met a couple years ago in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Boorman has done a fabulous job of capturing the South African spirit of both whites and blacks. Both have a strong love of their country despite their strained past. The true spirit of Unbutu (forgiveness) is ever present.
I, too, wondered why the part of Anna was not given to native South African actress Charlize Theron, but it's director's preogrative. Perhaps her experiences of growing up in an Apartheid society would have inadvertently biased the film from the tone of the movie the director intended to portray or maybe it was because Juliette Binoche was similar in appearance to Antjie Krog. Boorman did state it was Binoche's right emotional range in her acting that was suited for the role.
The cinematography of the film was fantastic, bringing out the gorgeous sweeping South African landscape. I'm hoping future movies about South Africa are not just about Apartheid or AIDS. It is a truly beautiful country with many enjoyable facets and beautiful people. This is the chance for young fresh directors of South Africa to bring their country out onto the global stage. "
A Fine Documentary Cluttered with Peripheral Distractions
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 07/08/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"IN MY COUNTRY (COUNTRY OF MY SKULL), based on a book by Antjie Krog about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of 1996 set in the aftermath of Apartheid, has been altered by screenwriter Ann Peacock and director John Boorman who have elected to 'dramatize' that event by fleshing out 'committed journalists' on both sides of the color fence: South Afrikaner Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) and American hothead Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The dichotomy of the white/black reconciliation is thus reversed; Anna is white defending the South African blacks while Langston is black firing his vitriol against the white South Afrikaners.
The story is immensely important to tell: 21,800 blacks were tortured and killed in the final days of Apartheid, but in the wisdom of South African philosophy the perpetrators are given amnesty if they confront their crimes and show remorse. This noble morality is the single most touching aspect of this story. During the Commission hearings all reporters hear the grief of the victims' families and are stunned. Though initially hostile to each other, Anna and Langston gradually are able to listen to each other's perspectives and become romantically involved (both are married with children) and as the film ends the affair is ended in keeping with the example of the truth the TRC has established.
In an attempt to make this reality into a movie the impact is dulled by the Hollywoodesque treatment. Yes, Binoche and Jackson are fine actors (as is Menzi Ngubane who plays a wholly loveable South African instigator), but the melodrama they are forced to enact is superficial and does not add to the otherwise powerful message of this film. This is a movie that deserves the attention of a wide audience. Just pay more attention to the facts than to the soupy frosting under which it plays. Grady Harp, July 05"