In My Country
2005, R, 104 min. Directed by John Boorman. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Juliette Binoche, Brendan Gleeson, Menzi "Ngubs" Ngubane, Lionel Newton, Langley Kirkwood.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., April 8, 2005
This is one of those important films you’d like to recommend to everyone: It’s politically trenchant, provocative, and absolutely clear of purpose. In dramatizing the trials of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a series of public hearings intended to purge the evil of apartheid from Nelson Mandela’s newly democratic South Africa and grant amnesty to those accused of police brutality, given that they express their regret and demonstrate that they were operating within a systemic chain of command – the film displays a notion of justice we in the United States would do well to consider in our current political climate. There’s a complicated love story set in the foreground of the film (Binoche and Jackson, fellow reporters on opposite sides of the racial and national fence, find a sort of healing together), and it’s an interesting and well-acted motif for personal struggle and acceptance. The trouble is that In My Country doesn’t translate smoothly from Antjie Krog’s novel (titled Country of My Skull) to the screen, at least not in accordance with Ann Peacock’s script and Boorman’s direction. Peacock is a former attorney and writer of teleplays, and while such a background needn’t be a handicap, it is here; the film relies too heavily upon talking heads in the courtroom to convey the stories of the 21,800 mostly black petitioners to the Commission (one Afrikaans settler speaks of watching his family destroyed by a guerilla land mine; it isn’t clear if his presence is factually representative). Some of the stories stand out above the others as particularly moving, but these stories suggest dramatic material richer than the sight of international journalists gazing out the windows of their ramshackle charter bus or transcribing frantically. Boorman ups the intensity by giving a vile, genocidally minded policeman (Gleeson) an audience with Jackson, a politicized Washington Post reporter who elsewhere in the film expresses his frustration with the commission’s policy of "ubuntu" – justice served not through punishment but by forgiveness. I’ve seen other reviewers praise Gleeson for this performance, but he’s so unrestrained that he seems cartoonish, a grave misstep in a work whose intention is to prove the banality of evil. Boorman moves between the segments awkwardly and fades out of several scenes as if he’s making a getaway when things get too complicated. Moments of the film seem like one of the 40-second sound bites Binoche’s character is allowed by her producer. (When her producer commends her on excerpting a grieving mother’s anguished scream, Boorman makes a pointed statement about the cynicism of the media, seemingly unaware that he might be eligible for similar criticisms.) There is great material here and ample food for thought, but the presentation is lacking.