Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- Both documentaries and feature films have dealt with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa's extraordinary tribunal that attempted to heal the wounds of apartheid through confession and amnesty rather than revenge and retribution.
On balance, the documentary approach has worked best. Fiction has a difficult time competing with the brutal reality of what happened in South Africa during the dark decades of repression, torture and murder. Furthermore, fiction demands third-act resolutions that fly in the face of South African reality: The hurt suffered under apartheid may be forgiven but never truly "resolved."Red Dust
, a feature made mostly by South Africans and starring Oscar-winner Hilary Swank
, at least understands the problem and succeeds to some degree in having it both ways: It solves a murder mystery, but leaves open and raw the wounds suffered by its victims.
Swank's presence will make the movie accessible in North America, but its success in adult urban cinemas may be limited in that most viewers are unfamiliar with the reconciliation commission.
Adapting Gillian Slovo
's novel, Troy Kennedy Martin's script tells the story of an amnesty application filed by a cop, Dirk Hendricks (Jamie Bartlett
), for the torture of political activist Alex Mpondo, played by the talented Chiwetel Ejiofor
(Dirty Pretty Things
), who is now a Member of Parliament. So brutal was the beating that Alex cannot remember what happened to Steve Sizela, a friend arrested along with him, who was never seen again.
Swank plays Sarah Barcant, a South African-born attorney who fled that country years before to live in New York (which presumably explains her completely American accent). At the behest of her mentor, activist Ben Hoffman (Marius Weyers
), she returns to her homeland to represent both Alex, who opposes the amnesty, and Steve's family.
Two questions hang over the hearing: Will Hendricks' testimony, which must be fully truthful for amnesty to be granted, implicate his unrepentant former superior, Piet Muller (Ian Roberts), in Steve's disappearance? And will Alex remember what role he may have played in Steve's fate?
British television director Tom Hooper, making his feature debut, maintains a lively pace, and the story contains enough twists and turns to sustain interest in what is, after all, a 14-year-old murder case. Unfortunately, the film focuses more on Sarah and her reaction to what she learns instead of the true protagonist, Alex, who risks his future life and career on the outcome.
This focus tips the balance of the movie into more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one. Whether the case will persuade Sarah to remain in South Africa to help rebuild the country is not nearly as compelling as Alex's desperate search for the truth about his friend and his possible involvement in his fate.
As it is, Swank's role is far too reactive to carry the film, a task that falls to Ejiofor, who delivers a complex and empathetic performance as a man willing to get torn apart by the truth.
Cinematographer Larry Smith and designer Mark Wilby
take advantage of the awesome landscapes and rugged townships of a country we are still getting to know in movies to create a striking environment for the tragic tale to unfold.
The film goes a long way toward explaining the healing philosophy and methodology behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which could serve an example to all damaged peoples of how best to seek justice.
Distant Horizon & BBC Films in association with Videovision Entertainment and Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: Troy Kennedy-Martin
Based on the novel by: Gillian Slovo
Producers: Ruth Caleb, David M. Thompson, Anant Singh
, Helena Spring
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Mark Wilby
Music: Rob Lane
Editor: Avril Beukes
Sarah Barcant: Hilary Swank
Alex Mpondo: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Dirk Hendricks: Jamie Bartlett
Ben Hoffman: Marius Weyers
Piet Muller: Ian Roberts
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 110 minutes