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James Gregory once lived in a farm and had befriended a native youth, Bafana, and had even had a photograph taken with him. Years later, now married to Gloria and father of three children (Chris, Brett, and Natasha), James has nothing but shame and regret, as many South African Caucasians in the oppressive Apartheid-era ridiculed him, leading him to hate Africans. He seeks to redeem himself by spying on imprisoned African National Congress Leader, Nelson Mandela. In the restrictive high security prison his job is to censor all written and verbal communications between prisoners, their visitors, and correspondence. James is uncomfortable when he witnesses Caucasian police and security officers' brutality against civilians, including infants, and tries to understand why Nelson became a rebel. This leads him to examine the 'Freedom Charter', a banned document, reportedly known to incite violence against 'whites'. And when he does read this document, he changes his mind about Nelson's ... Written by
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Not without merit, in this fanciful retelling of mutual respect between a prison guard and Mandela, but 'Apartheid for Dummies' is what it annoyingly all too often resembles.
Seems quite sad that the true-to-life character of Nelson Mandela would be reduced to a supporting character in a film about him; his stay on the Robben Island prison and his consequent release in the 1990s. Truth is, Bille August's 2007 film has a head and a heart in two different places; his film more closely resembling the sort of thing your bog-standard GCSE teacher might slap on for the students in class, before nipping out for a quick cigarette, during the week that sees the school syllabus demand South African Apartheid era be studied. But despite all this, it didn't bother me as much; the film observing the changing attitudes of a prison guard on the aforementioned island jail and using him as an example of which the greater changing attitudes of a nation at that time are templated. Yes, it resembles a TV movie of the week and yes, at about the half way mark you can envisage the film's final few moments consisting of a little white text caption coming into focus on the black background detailing what the lead character's current state is; but above all this is a film wanting to tackle a white individual's guilt rather than a black individual's plight and with this established pretty early on in the film, I did not have a problem with the direction the film took.
Goodbye Bafana revolves around a pro-white; pro-Apartheid guard with the South African prison service named James Gregory, played by Joseph Fiennes, who moves to Robben island with his family of wife Gloria (Kruger); young son Brent and daughter Natasha in the 1960s. James is a censor officer, cutting out words and sentences from inmates' letters and having the authority to listen in on conversations inmates have with their visitors; cruelly cutting them off if he deems it fit to do so in that they break the house rules. The very first scene is the family shipping themselves off to the island, a sense of life beginning at this point. James is the focus here, his family relegated to mere items of viewership with the children playing roles that see them ask the questions that ill-informed on Apartheid audience members will be asking; Diane Kruger, the relatively talented actress, not given anything to do bar be relegated into playing the role of the token fascist whose racial tidbits sum up an entire mindset of an era. "Why are the blacks prisoners on the island?" asks Brent; "Because they're terrorists who want our land." replies Gloria, in a fabricated and false manner. Then we remember this is playing to GCSE students whom are unfamiliar with the subject and it is they who are asking with the programmed response kicking in.
James is the bridge between a shallow, vacuous existence in his wife's-plus-her friends' empty existence on the island and the gruelling, grotty prison set life of a number of imprisoned blacks whom it is deemed are enemies of the state. One of these is the aforementioned Nelson Mandela, played here by Dennis Haysbert, who does a reasonable job shuffling from scene to scene and keeping a stern and expressionless face in playing the man; although the level of the performance cannot be understated when we recall what it is Haysbert is exactly required to do: essentially playing a dispirited prisoner throughout and given little room to play the equality driven saviour of a nation and its beliefs.
Interestingly, the moment that encapsulates the very sentiment that the film is more interested in Gregory's tale than Mandela and his struggle and the manner in which he went about doing what he did actually occurs very late on, but it's telling all the same; in a sequence that sees Mandela and his assistants sit around a large table about to indulge in the sorts of discussions that saw them do what they did but sees James leave the room with the film following him, just as those at the table appear to get started, so as to cover his moving house and his family problems. Akin to this is James' gradual arc of realisation, something that's satisfying in its very basic observation; the man's past life experience in knowing a young black boy in his youth proof he was once able to connect with blacks in a friendly manner with moments such as the reading of some kind of Mandela written equality charter just foreshadowing the obvious.
As the years roll on and everyone grows older, the Gregory's shift around and Mandela himself is kept on the sidelines as he changes prisons looking at the main strand of the film from a distanced perspective. It's a situation akin to John Boorman's 2005 film Country of My Skull (In My Country, to Americans), when the plight and strife of oppressed South Africans and their justice is given the odd glance in tangent to a Caucasian individual or individuals and their relationships with other Caucasians around them plus whatever hardships they suffer with their employers. It isn't reason enough to hate the film, but it's reason enough to get a little flustered provided you can identify the niggling frustrations and work around them so as to enjoy the film as it stands. The film tries to provide some dramatic tension to proceedings, the arrival of a new and more brutal Robben Island chief of staff later on in life supposed to instill a sense of what might happen if Gregory were to be caught by this new chief as his attitudes begin to change. Goodbye Bafana was made with the best of intentions, achieving what it sets out to do with relative dramatic and respectful aplomb, but one cannot argue that it all too often feels like a low-key retelling of events for those naive to the subject matter.
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