In My Country
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings deserve a film like Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda—something that brings that historical drama to life in a way that helps us shoulder the burden of history and walk away wiser. In My Country tries to be that film, but falls short.
The hearings, which started in 1996 and lasted two years, gave more than 20,000 witnesses a chance to testify—2,000 publicly—against their predominantly white oppressors in a courtroom. Even more astonishing: The hearings were not about retribution. They were carried on to give the world a demonstration of principled forgiveness and "ubuntu" (a South African word for reconciliation). The accused could attempt to explain their behavior, and they could appeal for amnesty if they could prove that they were "just following orders" and were politically motivated in their violence.
Clearly, director John Boorman had the resources at his disposal to make a powerful, affecting drama. He had the gorgeous backdrop of the lush South African landscape. He had three supremely talented actors—Samuel Jackson, Juliette Binoche, and Brendan Gleeson—in the leading roles. And he had a vast reservoir of eyewitness testimonies about racial violence that he could have used to educate a dismayingly ignorant Western audience. Those must have been amazing scenes that played out in those makeshift courtrooms, as the wronged South Africans confronted their oppressors in court with spirit-crushing stories of murder, rape, and mutilation. We hear several devastating stories based on actual transcripts. A woman begs to have the severed hand of her son back, so she has something to bury. Another weeps for her husband, who was stabbed thirty-seven times just so the government could "eliminate" a "thorn in the flesh." One man testifies about how electrocution rendered his body useless. "I want my manhood back," he declares.
But Boorman seems uninspired by these confrontations. Ann Peacock's adaptation of Antjie Krog's autobiographical Country of My Skull makes the audience less interested in the liberation of the South Africans and more interested in whether the two weary journalists at the center of the story will suffer nervous breakdowns or run off into the desert for a torrid love affair.
Despite its good intentions, the film fails largely because Jackson and Binoche, one of the oddest onscreen pairings in recent years, aren't given convincing characters to play. And the dialogue throughout the film creaks under the weight of oversimplified arguments, information-loaded summaries, and angst-heavy sentiments—like, "When you despise yourself, it's that much easier to despise others." Thus the film feels more like a tour full of speeches than a story.
Langston Whitfield (Jackson) is a cynical Washington Post journalist who thinks he has come to see white supremacists get let off the hook for their wickedness. He scoffs at the idea of "ubuntu," and asks if the hearings show that black people have a greater capacity for forgiveness, or that white people have a greater capacity for murder.