Based on Antjie Krog’s memoir, Country of My Skull, John Boorman’s new movie takes on a daunting subject, namely, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa. Beginning in 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, some 21,800 victims of the “Grand Apartheid Plan” (enacted in 1948), told their stories and faced their abusers. According to the tradition of ubuntu (“African Justice”), as the policemen and other torturers participated in the hearings, admitted their crimes, and apologized, they would be granted amnesty.
Such extraordinary effort toward exposure of truth and reconciliation with the past, as opposed to punishment and vengeance, made the hearings (which went on for years) something of a worldwide sensation. And so the reporters from many nations descended on South Africa, traveling from one village to the next to record and translate the proceedings to their home populations. In My Country finds its way in to this morass of competing feelings, strategies, and mediations through two fictional journalists, Washington Post reporter Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Afrikaans poet/approximate Krog stand-in Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), reporting daily for South African radio. Traveling by bus (and in Langston’s better-funded U.S. case, by BMW) from village to village to hear atrocities narrated, each brings speciifc baggage to the proceedings.
While Ann Peacock’s script tends toward the predictable (Anna and Langston, both married, end up attracted to one another, in spite of themselves and because they are played by movie stars), as well as speechy exchanges between the principals that lead to their own truth and reconciliation procedure, it does also gesture, occasionally, to the much larger, more acute story that surrounds them. One aspect of this story is embodied by Anna’s sound engineer, the charming and eager to please Dumi (Menzi ‘Ngubs’ Ngubane), whose own troubled and troubling past is not revealed until late in the film. His circumstances are in fact more compelling than either Anna’s or Langston’s, but its moral difficulties — and perhaps the fact that he is a black South African, rather than a black American or a white Afrikaner — make it less likely to be the focus of a mainstream movie.
That’s not to say that In My Country does not address difficult questions, only that it does so by mollifying means. Anna’s background stages an internalized national conflict while Langston provides an outsider’s viewpoint (and angry black man’s demeanor). Anna has been brought up in a world of privilege and presumption, her unforgiving and unforgivable father (whom she calls Poppy), rigid in his belief that keeping the blacks under control was “for their own good,” and her mother Elsa (Aletta Bezuidenhout) more open-minded and emotionally fragile, but fixedly loyal to her husband (for specific reasons that resonate with the theme of the tremendous emotional, social, and moral costs of ongoing, webbed-up lies). While Anna is the outspoken liberal of the family, earning the resentment of her brother Boetie (Langley Kirkwood), she does her best to maintain a sort of superficial peace. She loves her Poppy, and she tries to understand him rather than judge him.
But even as Anna talks a great game of endurance, forgiveness, and honesty, she’s also been living a lie, premised on at least a modicum of willful ignorance. As Langston pouts it to her (and to his readers back in the States, much to her horror), the pains of well-intentioned Afrikaners to not know what was going on for all those decades of atrocities are remarkable, and even akin to the non-Nazi German population’s unawareness during the Holocaust. Langston’s pursuit of truth leads him to a series of interviews with one of the primary perpetrators, the fictionalized Colonel De Jager (Brendan Gleeson). Their meetings, undertaken at the Colonel’s cozy home-as-prison, lead to some awful revelations and pointed confrontations. “I’ve got nothing against blacks,” insists De Jager, as he reveals the locations of bodies and the details of their abuses (including rape, dismemberment, beating, beheading, and electrocution).
Speculating on why Langston wants to speak with him at all, De Jager surmises, “You want to get into the mind of a man who did all those terrible things to your brothers.” Insisting that he’s not a “psychopath,” he suggests that he’s a product of a sustained system of degradation, mistreatment, and malevolence. (It’s worth noting, as De Jager does, that he is among the minions accused of atrocities while his superiors go free, especially now, when Abu Ghraib prison guards are tried and trotted out for media excoriation as “bad apples,” while no senior military or civilian Pentagon officials have even seen a subpoena.) De Jager has one thing right — it’s easier to imagine these monsters as deviant rather than logical ends of an incremental system, as it allows viewers to keep close the idea that this won’t happen “here,” where here might be. Langston is not appeased by the man’s rationalizations, but rather, appalled. Accordingly, his outrage is (or becomes) yours.
In the midst of this outrage, the film negotiates the intricacies of ubuntu by offering instances where a desire for revenge seems impossible to resist. So, brief images of cynical torturers might incite less forgiveness than umbrage: “I told the truth, I’m asking for amnesty,” says one, looking smug; as their “political motive” officially lets the abusers off, Anna asks, “Can you rape with a political motive?”; and at last, one murderer kneels before the young boy he traumatized into muteness by killing his mother in front of him, and is overcome when the boy hugs him, an incredible moment that teeters here on the edge of triteness. The movie also lapses into “instruction,” partly by way of Langston’s own ignorance, earnest as it may be. Why, he wonders, does Anna cry on hearing these testimonies while so many black listeners remain silent? Dumi explains, “It’s not a surprise to us. We did our crying years ago.”
Over the course of the hearings — and the bonding rituals for Anna, Langston, and Dumi, who go drinking at night — the film tries a little too hard to instruct viewers as to the complexities of forgiveness. At times, these lessons become strangely reductive (“Truth has become a woman,” reports Anna, following a particularly grueling day of listening to mothers wail over their lost children. “Everybody recognizes her, yet nobody knows her”), while others quite exceed comprehension (the extent to which the torturers’ imaginations took them is frankly stunning, and understandably remain off-screen).
Surely, Boorman’s politics and own truth-telling aims are admirable, as they were in his underrated 1995 film, Beyond Rangoon, concerning the turmoil in Burma and the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi. But like that film, this one deflects focus on actual victims and heroes of the struggle by granting all kinds of emotional uproar for the surrogate outsider; and, though Patricia Arquette made a mesmerizing surrogate, the performers here are occasionally overwhelmed by mundane dialogue (“We all knew,” moans Anna at last, her sense of national identity undone, “But not the fucking details!”) and needlessly melodramatic situations (“My skin will never forget you,” Anna tells Langston).
The defects of In My Country don’t necessarily undo its political work, and they hardly detract from the looming fact that, of late, it is the British-born Boorman and the Irish-born Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) who even tried to bring African stories to mainstream movies. “I killed for my country,” says De Jager. And that is precisely the problem.