The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, (TRC), was a court-like body assembled in South Africa after Apartheid ended. The mandate of the commission, established under Nelson Mandela, was "to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, reparation and rehabilitation." Anybody who felt they had been a victim of violence could come forward and be heard before the Commission. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request Amnesty from prosecution. The hearings made headlines around the world and many sessions were televised on national TV.
John Boorman's political drama is set in South Africa in 1996, at the beginning of the TRC hearings. The film includes testimony which graphically describes the brutal atrocities perpetrated under the apartheid system and is extremely moving. The hearings were designed to bring a measure of domestic peace to South Africa following decades of violent, inhumane and repressive government. I believe that Boorman's goal here is to help westerners understand the African concept of "ubuntu," or justice that involves confession, forgiveness and a restoration of amity rather than mere retribution. And he does succeed on many levels. However, the movie has some major flaws which seriously distract from the inspirational story.
Anna Malan, (Juliette Binoche), a progressive Afrikaaner journalist and poet, is assigned to cover the hearings for a local radio station in Cape Town. Her commentary will also be broadcast on National Public Radio in the United States. Anna comes from a wealthy South African family with large landholdings. They have farmed here for generations. The Malan family would prefer that Anna not become involved in any activities surrounding the TRC. However, she is extremely optimistic that a deep and abiding peace will prevail, eventually, between fellow citizens, black and white. She identifies strongly with Africa, and the principle of "ubuntu."
Dumi Mkhalipi (Menzi "Ngubs" Ngubane), plays Anna's savvy black South African assistant.
Washington Post correspondent Langston Whitfield, (Samuel L. Jackson), in Cape Town to cover the events, has a much more cynical view of the proceedings. He believes the hearings represent a giant smokescreen designed to protect the whites from the consequences of their crimes. He would much rather a harsher punishment be imposed, one reflecting vengeance. After his initial, contentious discussion with Anna he begins to mellow, interpersonally anyway, and to hang out with her and Dumi. She finally makes her point that she is as African as he is, and in many ways, more so.
There is a subplot involving Whitfield's series of interviews with Colonel De Jager, (Brendan Gleeson), a member of the military in the former apartheid regime, responsible for numerous atrocities and notorious for innovative torture techniques.
The testimonies are extremely well depicted, and as I mentioned above, quite emotional. Seamus Deasy, director of photography, beautifully captures the majesty of the South African countryside. And the historical theme is perfect for adaptation into a first-class drama. So what happens? Where do things go wrong? (And they do).
Well, I'd like to know why a contrived, awkward romance was stuck right in the middle of the main storyline? Is not the drama of apartheid, plus the concept of "ubuntu," as well as actual historic testimony, great actors, unbelievable cinematography, etc., enough to create significant cinema? Did "In My Country" need the embellishment of an adulterous romance? There's not a scintilla of chemistry between Anna and Langston. Totally unnecessary and distracting filler!
And why the melodrama? There is more than enough serious, true life material to have to resort to extravagant portrayals. This kind of writing/directing trivializes rather than accentuates and dramatizes. There is one courtroom scene where Juliette Binoche, (one of my favorite actresses), goes right over the top. I felt embarrassed for her and for the lack of subtlety with which she was asked to perform. Also, I do find it difficult to believe that Anna is so shocked by the testimonies. After all, she has lived in South Africa all of her life. As an American, I knew about many of the atrocities committed during apartheid - in the 1980's. Fewer than four million Afrikkaners stood by while more than 30 million of their countrymen and women were oppressed and brutalized, simply because of the color of their skin. And Anna is shocked? She is a journalist. She must have traveled outside Africa. I am sure she read articles and books from other countries? Was there no progressive/liberal underground? Simply not credible. Anna was also, always, the only person to react with such surprise. Has she been on Mars?
I believe that most of the movie's problems lie in screenwriter Ann Peacock's adaptation of South African Antjie Krog's semi-autobiographical book, "Country of My Skull," and in John Boorman's clumsy, often heavy-handed direction.
Remember, there is an upside to my review, and it is for the movie's "plusses" that I give it 3 stars. Everyone should see it, for the history and for the knowledge it imparts. I am just reminded what a brilliant film "Hotel Rwanda" is and know that "In My Country" could have been turned into a 5 Star work of art also. The subject matter warrants it.