Thursday, April 29, 2004

Country of My Skull

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (preview)

Country of My Skull means well. Oh, boy, does it mean well. Director John Boorman clearly admires and is fascinated by the South African Truth And Reconciliation Commission, a traveling tribunal set up after the end of apartheid with the purpose of eliciting the whole truth by offering amnesty to those who will admit it and whose crimes were politically motivated; it operated during 1995 and 1996. It's a fascinating concept which itself contains many heartbreaking stories; a documentary that covers the same subject, Long Night's Journey Into Day, was nominated for an Oscar three years ago, and is excellent.

This feature, however, is less impressive. Based upon a semi-autobiographical novel by Antjie Krog, it follows two writers assigned to cover the hearings. Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is an American working for The Washington Post who initially feels that if he wanted to write about white cops killing black people, he could do that from home; Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) is an Afrikaaner poet doing commentary for South African and American radio. Anna's assistant Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), being a gregarious sort, soon makes friends with Whitfield, but the two journalists initially dislike each other.

Here's the thing - without Langston and Anna, you may as well just be making a documentary. The idea behind the two characters is sound and rather clever - Langston calls himself "African-American" but learns about actual African culture from a white woman, and Anna needs the foreigner's perspective to see how she and her family are complicit in apartheid, even though she personally has always found it abhorrent. Focusing on them, however, deflects attention from the truly unique and fascinating work of the commission. Additionally, their scenes often seem prepackaged and overly familiar, perfect examples of what people mean when they use "Hollywood" as a pejorative. Their growing closeness and the stress of bearing witness to so much horror leads in an inevitable direction, and it's no surprise when it means the characters have to deal with the Commission's ideals of truth and forgiveness on a personal level. None of this is close to as unique or fascinating as the film's background.

Also not helping are the mostly flat performances; few of the supporting characters and family members are more than placeholders. Jackson and Binoche are a bit better than adequate, and while Menzi Ngubane shows real charisma, the best performance comes from Boorman regular Brendan Gleeson. As De Jager, a fictionalized version of one of the old regime's most infamous war criminals being interviewed by Jackson's character, Gleeson has the most force of personality, and becomes the most interesting character in the movie: Is he a sociopath who found a place he could thrive, or a patriot who became too willing to do wrong to defend his way of life? And does it matter? That, as my friend Laurel pointed out, is a question we should all be concerned about, given the current political climate. Another thing that's somewhat glossed over is that after the hearings, the black and white members of the press go to a bar and hang out together, and the one who (initially) seems the most uncomfortable is the American; Dumi also seems to harbor no ill will toward the various white Afrikaaners. Is this meant to imply that the reconciliation process is working, or that these characters are just more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country? There is remarkably little tension visible outside Anna's family for a country whose way of life has just been turned upside down

It's too bad these questions aren't given more prominence; they might have made Country of My Skull a much better movie than it was. During the Q&A after the preview screening, Boorman described the movie as still being "amenable to change", and the preview audience did hammer him on the relationship between Anna and Langston (well, they hammered him in a mostly polite, respectful manner). I don't know how much change is possible, though; though it isn't scheduled to open in the US until this September, IMDB has it opening in Ireland next month.

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