“At the heart of apartheid is the division of the land.” This opening title card for Promised Land introduces its focus. In 1994, South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) initiated a process of reconciliation. The government promised to reallocate ownership of a third of the nation's land within 10 years. As Yoruba Richen’s Promised Land reveals, this plan was in trouble from its inception. By looking at two particular land disputes -- claims made by the 9,000-member Mekgareng community and 1,000 descendants of Abram Molamu -- this smart, subtly complex documentary shows essential complications in the process. These include the government’s assumption (or best hope) that changes might be wrought based on a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In fact, most white owners are unwilling and many black buyers have been ill-prepared, their legal claims unrecorded (owing to decades of oppression, abuse, and exploitation) and their claims still stuck in a kind of first gear, grinding. The trouble is, land is never just land: it is a measure of citizenship, a means to civil rights and self-identity; it is multiply meaningful, across generations and immediately, an emblem of economic and mythic status, political and emotional well-being.
Promised Land screens at Maysles Cinema at 7pm on 14 November, part of "Doc Watchers Presents," curated by Hellura Lyle. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Yoruba Richen.
See PopMatters' review.