Photo by Karen 'Blid' AlsbirkFew filmmakers can claim a body of work as blithely
uneven as that of British director John Boorman, whose fat résumé glides from
the sublime (Point Blank, Deliverance, Hope and Glory, The General)
to the pedestrian (The Tailor of Panama) to the Hollywood-ridiculous
(Exorcist II: The Heretic). Boorman is a passionate man even
at his most cunningly iconoclastic: The General, a craftily equivocal portrait
of the vicious Irish gangster Martin Cahill, is arguably his best film. His political
commitment is irresistible even when, as in Beyond Rangoon and his
new film — In My Country, an awkward but intensely engaged
attempt to bring alive the proceedings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation
Commission hearings — his movies don’t add up to sophisticated cinema. For those
who don’t know (and Boorman and his screenwriter Ann Peacock, a South African
native now living in the United States, assume with not a little arrogance that
this includes everyone living outside South Africa), the TRC was an Afrocentric
effort devised in 1996, shortly after Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency, by
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others to speed the process of national healing from
the scars of apartheid through public confession and amnesty.
Stagy, declamatory and vulgarized by a need to hype inherently dramatic material, In My Country is, like so many movies about the Third World made for Western audiences, coyly framed by a love story between two warring journalists. If Antjie Krog, the Afrikaner poet whose book about her experiences covering the hearings inspired the movie, really did have an affair with a foreign correspondent, I hope for her sake that it offered more hot sex and less speechifying than that between Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), an Afrikaner radio journalist and poet, and the meaningfully named Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a cocky Washington Post reporter with a racial chip on his shoulder the size of the young Malcolm X’s. It’s unnerving to watch two such accomplished actors trying to breathe fire and chemistry into lines that are essentially position papers, with Langston repping both American retributive justice and black identity politics, and Anna the white liberal suspended between despair over her country’s past and hope for its future. And while their encounter is clearly meant to open both their hearts and minds to the complexities of justice and forgiveness, just about everyone they meet as they follow the buses through the majestic countryside (beautifully shot by Seamus Deasy) is a type, from Anna’s bitter, disenfranchised father and brother, to the sound engineer who has one foot in the apartheid-era black radical movements and the other in the emerging racially mixed society, to her boss, who hates the word boss “because it sounds so reactionary.” Only Brendan Gleeson, as a hard-faced former police commander surely modeled on the notorious Eugene de Kock, brings some hard-nosed complexity to what threatens to be nothing more than a goodhearted movie of the week with big stars. For my money, no film about apartheid in South Africa has yet come close to Chris Menges’ brilliant A World Apart, made in 1988, just before that poisonous system fell to pieces. Yet movies like In My Country, however preachy and oversimplified, have their place in a world that until recently has remained willfully ignorant of the scale of human misery unfolding on that continent. In the small but encouraging pantheon of movies that is belatedly bringing Africa’s troubles to international audiences, In My Country stands closest to Hotel Rwanda, a similarly clumsy yet inescapably moving effort to confront the brutal consequences of colonial oppression while giving the lie to Western misconceptions of Africa as a continent dominated by bloodthirsty tribalism. In My Country is a work of impassioned advocacy for South Africa’s magnificent experiment in public confession and forgiveness, while facing up, in the shocking climax, to the uncomfortable fact that the experiment had its detractors, its saboteurs — and its limits. IN MY COUNTRY | Directed by JOHN BOORMAN | Written by ANN PEACOCK, based on the book Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog | Produced by ROBERT CHARTOFF, MIKE MEDAVOY, BOORMAN, KIERAN CORRIGAN and LYNN HENDEE | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theaters

LA Weekly