Judge Joel Pearce hates when bad movies happen to good people.
"Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."—Nelson Mandela
There's no point in beating around the bush. In My Country is a frustrating disappointment: a film that promises a quest for truth and reconciliation but delivers a bland love story. It is a film with a great mountain of potential, which only makes the letdown worse.
Facts of the Case
When apartheid in South Africa finally ended, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in hopes of uncovering truth and promoting justice in a uniquely African way. The concept of Ubuntu says that we are all intricately connected. Any hurtful thing that is done harms everyone, including the person inflicting harm. Likewise, acts of forgiveness can make tangible improvements in society. Under this conceptual framework, victims of racism are able to confront their persecutors and speak the truth. Those that did evil are then able to confirm this truth, gaining amnesty so long as the commission is satisfied that they were acting under orders.
The commission itself is the stuff of great storytelling, but it takes a back seat to a love story between two reporters: Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient), a Dutch Afrikaner, and Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson, Coach Carter), an African American journalist who has come from Washington to uncover the horrors of apartheid.
There is something uniquely powerful about hearing testimony from the victims of horrible crimes. It's one of the main reasons that legal dramas are so popular in our society. Even more powerful are the moments in this film where the perpetrators describe those same events, apologizing for their part of the pain and injustice. Would this process work for the people involved? It's hard to say. Coming from a North American mentality, hearing these descriptions should just create more anger. After all, no one deserves to be forgiven for this kind of atrocity. Perhaps that's the point though. It's impossible to forget or immediately solve these problems, but rushing around trying to punish the people involved won't solve anything either. By forgiving the people involved, the victims of these horrors are taking the first step towards reconciliation.
A film that focused on the commission could have been exciting, but also fascinating are the scenes between Langston Whitfield and Colonel De Jager (Brendan Gleeson, Braveheart). De Jager is a tough soldier who has been thrown to the wolves by the generals behind the atrocities, and he is willing to work with Langston in order to bring them down with him. Langston's hatred for this brutal man adds a valuable angle to the film, and De Jager's trial is one of the most morally complex segments of In My Country. Unfortunately, this story is only covered briefly, interspersed with all of the other nonsense that pads the story and awkwardly tries to parallel the redemption of the South African people.
Adapting a novel is always challenging, because a film can't hold as much content as a novel can. The plot needs to be singled out, and peripheral concerns need to be shortened or eliminated. Decisions about what is essential must be made. In My Country is odd in that it has removed the wrong parts of the story. The developing friendship between Langston and Anna isn't terrible, but it pales in comparison to its political backdrop. There is nothing subtle about their relationship, which begins full of tension and dislike, but grows into understanding and affection through a series of poorly-scripted coincidences. This is a story we have all seen before, and seen handled much better. The whole point of the film is the quest for truth, but so few of the moments in the film genuinely ring true. It doesn't help that so much of the smaller roles are poorly performed. Some of the commission scenes are so awkwardly handled that I wondered why real footage from 1995 couldn't be used. The most powerful sequence in the movie is the opening credits, which intercut the beautiful South African scenery with footage of apartheid violence. None of the fiction that Boorman can create stands up to the simple truth of those images.
Ultimately, In My Country is the film equivalent of dreadful historical romance novels, which use historical education as a cover for lousy prose and paint-by-number plots. The impact of the great scenes are destroyed by poor choices, and the blandness of the main story is emphasized by the powerful nature of the events around it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although I was let down by the film itself, Sony has done a great job producing the DVD. The video transfer is gorgeous, perfectly capturing the rich colors of Africa. Detail is sharp and only the slightest hint of edge enhancement keep it from a perfect score. The sound is strong as well, with clear dialogue and music (although it's the same song for most of the film). There is little action in the rear channels, just a hint of echo to add depth on occasion. It also has some extras, including a commentary with director John Boorman. He discusses the political situation, and some of the choices that he made. It's not the most exciting commentary I have ever heard, but he covers a lot of ground. There are some deleted scenes, featuring more bad acting and peripheral character filling that would have made the situation even worse. Finally, there is a series of interview segments with the actors and crew. They are quite in-depth, and well worth checking out as an investigation into passionate filmmaking that falls flat.
There are strong moments throughout In My Country, and the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an important one to tell. Hopefully there will be a better film at some point that will handle that story with more dignity and power. If you are a fan of true stories and want to learn more about the commission, the film may be worth viewing, but I would recommend a rental rather than a purchase.
They should have known better. In My Country is hereby refused amnesty, and will stand trial for its lack of judgment.
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