Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Drum and Red Dust - Apartheid cinematic book ends?

TORONTO - Like a pair of cinematic bookends, Drum and Red Dust represent both the tragic beginning and promising ending of South Africa's 50-year experience with apartheid.

The powerfully themed films are two of several screening at this year's Toronto International Film Festival that look back at the apartheid issue while accompanying an apparent flowering of South African-based cinema.

In Drum, Taye Diggs plays Henry Nxumalo, a real-life journalist for a popular black magazine of the early 1950s who gradually develops a social conscience as he sees the race-dividing policy taking its brutal shape. He then launches a series of investigative exposes at great risk to his life.

In Red Dust, meanwhile, Hilary Swank (there must be a bankable Hollywood star for the international film market) is a New York lawyer who in 2000 joins the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a quasi judicial body that, in the post-apartheid years, travelled the countryside taking testimony. Unlike a normal judicial system, the commission dispensed amnesty for any 'political offenders' who made a full confession of their crimes, and attempted to force the prosecution those who lied or withheld information.

Zola Maseka, director of Drum, says his country has been a democracy for a mere 10 years and until recently funding for culture has not been a priority for a government burdened with so many other issues. At the same time, he says, South Africa's private sector is still owned by a white minority, one that is not going to fund films, especially those that rake over the coals of apartheid.

"But right now there's been quite a big injection of money, start-up funds, and this is the result of it," Maseka says. "Understanding that cinema can play a huge role in bringing South Africa on the map."

Red Dust producer Anant Singh has been making movies with South African themes for years, even in defiance of the former white regime. He says when the new democracy took over a decade ago, there wasn't a ministry of arts and culture and so he collaborated with the government to set up a program to support the film industry.

"We looked at the Canadian policy, we looked at the Australian, and did a sort of composite," Sing says. "So we support writers, film producers, a vast area of stuff. And I think the industry is at its best ever, demonstrated by the movies that are here."

Red Dust director Tom Hooper senses no reluctance to underwrite films about the apartheid struggle. While he might not have chosen the proper words, Hooper said that quite simply there are just so many amazing stories.

"I think South Africa is blessed with having this plurality of fantastic material, and I hope they continue to mine it."

Set as it is at apartheid's birth, Drum crackles with tension and dread and carries little hope beyond a wrenching scene in which black marchers conduct a peaceful funeral procession through the streets of Johannesburg in defiance of white officers who watch helplessly. A young Nelson Mandela is portrayed but director Maseka says he hasn't seen the film yet.

It also shows the quashing of the colourful Johannesburg sector known as Sophiatown, a last vestige of black clubs and music, where flashy gangsters mixed with writers and musicians.

Actor Tumisho Masha says it was a period of great artistic awakening.

"It was a time when South African musicians were really keen and very interested in the works of people like Miles Davis and other jazz greats of the time. And there was a lot of great literature and poetry being written."

Maseka says he had to be true to a period that represented an end of innocence, just before apartheid took off its gloves at the end of the '50s.

"In 1961 you had the Sharpeville massacre in which 169 people were killed, South Africa was thrown out of the Commonwealth, the ANC was banned, went into exile, state of emergency, kicked out of the Olympics, Nelson Mandela goes to prison."

It was only in the 1990s under pressure from the international community, he adds, when the country pulled back from the abyss.

And that's the miracle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is partly credited for helping avert a civil war and which is reflected in the magnificently photographed and acted Red Dust.

Director Hooper says he hopes his film helps educate an international community that has little awarenes of the story of how a blood bath had been avoided, primarily because peaceful stories don't get as much attention as the violence in places like Zimbabwe.

"It seems that conflict resolution is such a pressing issue at the moment in many theatres around the world," he says, referring to the commission's preference for forgiveness over punishment.

"It seemed to turn the entire history of western justice on its head, the process of truth and reconciliation."

Some might snigger at the simplistic view of the Commission Red Dust's Hooper has. What it achieved and what scores it left unsettled remains to be seen. Red Dust is box office inspired cinema afterall.

It will also be interesting to know what Gillian Slovo, former South African Communist Party leader's daugther and author of the book on which this film is based, makes of the film.

The precedent is not promising. Antjie Krog, Afrikaans author of Country of My Scull, detested the John Boorman interpretation of her book in the movie by the same name.

Singh has also produced another festival entry, Ian Gabriel's Forgiveness, starring Arnold Vosloo (Note to Americans: He is the bad guy in The Mummy remake and a well know South African actor) as a former white cop seeking forgiveness from his former victims.

And there is Yesterday, the first-ever feature shot entirely in the Zulu language. Hotel Rwanda with Don Cheadle and Nick Nolte, is also a South African co-production.