Film / TV



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

Neil Sandilands (top) plays Rijkhaart Jacobsz, a Dutch sailor, and Rene Brown (bottom) plays Claus Blank, a Cape slave in Proteus
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.

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 newspaper.

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 view.

"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 Reporter wrote.

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 up-and-coming directors.

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 alone.

"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

Related link
South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival



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