Friday, December 03, 2004

Blood on a Red Dust Floor

by Liezel Vermeulen

Red Dust’s British director Tom Hooper grew up learning about Apartheid at school. But when he read the screenplay of Gillian Slovo’s novel optioned by the BBC and Anant Singh’s VideoVision, his understanding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was fairly hazy. Now he has a visceral understanding of the effects of apartheid.

“I never felt that I wished I was a white South African. I felt freer coming from the outside, it was slightly easier to find a way of seeing the story.” But complete detachment isn’t really possible: witnessing the country’s disparities in eight months spent researching, visiting 17 platteland towns to find fictional Smitsivier and then filming in Graaff Reinett and Johannesburg.

Should a British filmmaker make a South African story? “I don’t feel proprietorial about being an outsider: UK’s Ridley Scott makes great American films and Rene Zellweger is playing Britain’s national icon. I would hope that as filmmakers we can work in a global environment”
“The central concept of the TRC is an extraordinary one, but it’s not part of the general knowledge base of people in the UK and USA. I will have succeeded if British and American young people who have grown up post 1994 come out with even a simple understanding of the TRC”
“Conflict management is misunderstood at a time when revenge and retaliation are so dominant. American foreign policy exploits the nature of revenge.” Hooper is also “desperate to show the film in Palestine”.

He didn’t know organisers would play a video message from TRC chairman Archbishop Tutu at the premiere at the CTCWF, “I was staggered. This message alone was enough. I so wanted people who went through the process to feel that it was accurate.” Tutu will be attend-ing the showing of Red Dust at the Dubai International Film Festival in December.

Red Dust has a superbly experienced cast: Jamie Bartlett finds the ebb and flow between tenderness and harrowing cruelty as the policeman seeking amnesty. Academy Award winner Hilary Swank plays brittle lawyer Sarah Barcant and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a compelling performance as Alex Mpondo, who confronts the unease of reconciliation in a world where vengeance is second nature.

The actors were incredibly flexible, even though they were dealing with a deep well of emotional trauma. The most powerful scene is where Nomhle Mkonyeni is at the gravesite of her son: “She was so closely drawing on her experience of losing a loved one during the Struggle. As a director I knew that to direct her would be outrageous, my duty was to stand back and record it”

Hooper would love to work in South Africa again: “When you are in the UK or USA, you are lucky to get a great script. In South Africa I am humbled that there are so many stories about transition and the apartheid era. South Africa is so crowded with great stories.”