Berlin film fest focuses on South Africa
A surprise hit at the festival was John Greyson's Proteus - the true-life account of two 18th Century Robben Island convicts - a Dutch sailor and a multi-lingual Hottentot
Ernest Gill | February 12, 2004
BERLIN — "Black or white?" Samuel L. Jackson is asked at one point in the South African film Country Of My Skull which is up for the Golden Bear award at the 54th Berlin Film Festival.
Neil Sandilands (top) plays Rijkhaart Jacobsz, a Dutch sailor, and Rene Brown (bottom) plays Claus Blank, a Cape slave in Proteus
Jackson, playing a hard-nosed Washington Post reporter writing about the fall of Apartheid, is taken aback by the question until he realises he is only being asked how he likes his coffee.
John Boorman's Country Of My Skull, starring Jackson and Juliette Binoche, is the showcase film at this festival, whose prime focus this year is on South African features, documentaries
and short films. It is the festival's way of marking the tenth anniversary of the fall of Apartheid.
"Country" received a warm but not all too enthusiastic reception during its competition screening in Berlin.
The picture is based on a personal account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings by Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog, who was commissioned to cover the event by state radio and a local
Binoche plays the poet, with Jackson the American newsman who
finds himself slowly falling for her.
German critics have lauded the film's high-minded intentions,
focussing on the key words "truth" and "reconciliation".
But non-German critics have been harsh on the film by
71-year-old Boorman whose last picture, the John le Carre
adaptation The Tailor of Panama was critically acclaimed though
it was not much of a box office success.
His new "film is a particular disappointment", wrote a reviewer
for Variety, the Hollywood trade paper.
"Though its intent is admirable, its execution is both clumsy and emotionally distancing," the reviewer added.
The Hollywood Reporter was equally harsh, saying, "The overly
melodramatic script manufactures episodes such as a flat tire and
nearby bar so both can let their hair down and argue their point of
"That these two married people wind up in the sack may be
stretching the meaning of truth and reconciliation.
"But this does point up a problem the movie never solves: how to
impose a fictional drama on such overwhelming real-life events
without the fictional stuff coming off as trivial," The Hollywood
But Boorman's production is not the only South African film at
this festival. A gay feature film and three documentary-style films
are being shown in the festival's Panorama section.
This section generally focusses on films which are more biting
and cutting-edge than those in the main awards competition section.
In addition, 10 films by young South African filmmakers are
being screened in the International Forum, which features works by
A surprise hit at the festival was John Greyson's Proteus,
being screened to enthusiastic applause in the Panorama section.
The film breaks new ground on several levels, being a
inter-racial gay love story set against the backdrop of the
infamous Robben Island penal camp off shore from Cape Town.
The plot revolves about the true-life account of two 18th
Century Robben Island convicts - a Dutch sailor and a multi-lingual
Hottentot - whose mutual despair and longing result in an uneasy
but passionate relationship.
It is a relationship that inevitably ends in both men being
tried on charges of "performing unnatural acts".
When the Dutch sailor confesses under torture and is sentenced
to death by drowning, his black friend breaks down and chooses to
die with him rather than be acquitted and return to Robben Island
"It was all based on actual records," director Greyson told the
audience after the film premiered in Berlin Wednesday evening.
"The record shows that these two men had had a relationship for
10 years and everyone apparently knew about it," he added. "And
then suddenly something occurred that resulted in their being
charged with sodomy."
Reading between the lines of the 1735 court documents, as it
were, Greyson came up with a compelling story of love and passion
and prejudice and intrigue.
Robben Island is now a museum dedicated to preserving the memory
of the suffering that occurred there primarily during the 1960s.
"Half the museum board members opposed our film project on the
grounds that it might detract from the museum's mission of
focussing on the 1960s," Greyson recalled.
"But the other half of the museum board felt it was legitimate
to show that Robben Island had been a place of suffering dating
back centuries," he added. "And that half eventually held sway."
While Proteus is not in competition for the Golden Bear, it is
considered a strong candidate for the Panorama section's honours,
awarded on the basis of audience responses cards. –Sapa-DPA
South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival