Living with the hurt
Live with the past, not forgetting it but then, not allowing it to imprison yourself – that message of forgiveness underscores the universality of Red Dust, a film set in South Africa’s post-Apartheid era. Rajeev Nair writes
The trouble, today, is to believe in what could pose for clichés. “Bringing communities together” – that sounds as the ideal prescription for universal peace, and yet, you know, somewhere down your heart, the futility of that Utopian idealism.
Red Dust, screened at Dubai International Film Festival, compels you to hope… hope that “bringing communities together” can happen, is happening, and that no matter the evils of the past, you can live with it, not allowing it to imprison yourself.
The film, directed by Tom Hooper, and to be screened as Diff’s closing gala on Friday, 8 pm, at the Madinat Arena, is a hard take on the lives of people who walk through the painful Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings. Devised to avoid the country plunging into civil war, at the TRC hearings you “are never prosecuted if you told the whole truth.” It was unique in its magnanimity. You tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. And we forgive you. No matter what you did. The hearings, however, also opened old wounds.
Sarah Barcant (Hilary Swank), a successful New York lawyer, has returned to South Africa, her home, which left on her deep wounds in the past. She is here to represent Alex Mpondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the African National Congress (ANC) MP, who has appealed against the amnesty application of Dirk Hendricks (Jamie Bartlett) for torturing him for 31 days – “three days of beating and 28 days of torture.” There are greater implications to the TRC hearings.
Mpondo must find the truth behind the disappearance of his friend and comrade, Steve. It entails trekking through rugged territory, where he will find himself forced to admit that he had “broke” and identified Steve Sizela as a fellow-comrade while questioning, if only to relieve the pain Steve was enduring. To “break” is to be traitor, and as the hearing proceeds, as Mpondo admits the truth, there is an immediate backlash by the township’s crowd that had only moments before given him a hero’s welcome.
The journey to the heart of truth progresses even as Hendricks finds himself being forced to cover up the involvement of fellow-police officer, Piet Muller (Ian Roberts) in Steve “going missing.” There are painful truths staring at Sarah too; she gets to learn the death of her own lover, an ANC activist. Finally, the film pans into the pain of Sizela’s parents, who after breaking down inconsolably realises that “forgiveness is great.”
Red Dust is also a commentary on the change actually happening in South Africa. The Mpondos of real life will feel “we have the right to say it hurts,” but they will also learn to live with it.
Tom Hooper narrates the story with a tempo that complements the thematic intensity of the film, based on a novel by Gillian Slovo, who was born in South Africa, lived there for until she was 12 and then went into exile with her parents to the UK.
The angst that brims in Mpondo is intensely conveyed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things), while Hilary Swank lends that sauve grace to the film’s courtroom proceedings. A South African himself, Jamie Bartlett plays Hendricks from the life that actually unfolded around him with perfect sensitivity. On the one hand, he is the hated tormentor, and yet he is human too.
Slovo says the basic premise of the book was her investigation into the questions: “Is it possible to exchange truth for justice? Is it ever possible to find out the truth?” The film’s message, adds producer Anant Singh, who is to produce the film, Long Walk to Freedom, based on Nelson Mandela’s bio featuring Morgan Freeman, “is relevant to all conflict places – in Northern Ireland, the Middle East… The film portrays that window of opportunity, which South Africa opened that enables people to forgive and make the country a better place. It was a unique achievement by the government and the people to create the TRC process.”
The film’s makers accept that racism is not a thing of the past. It exists in various forms but the “process of change has already begun. And it is the generation that grows up today, which will lead us to a non-racial society,” they hope.
The South African experience of reconciliation is an example to the whole world, says Anant Singh, who himself was imprisoned four times on issues of political activism. “The country does not pretend that all are the same; they allow for the differences and yet live together. The transformation that is taking place is remarkable.”
Slovo explains that picturising the painful moments Mpondo lives through in the film, being labeled as a traitor, was inspired by watching the TRC hearings on television. “It is considered shameful to admit that they had broken. I think that in the struggle in South Africa it required such a level of heroism to risk your life and the lives of people around you, and one of the great achievements of TRC was that it allowed people to talk about all these things. It allowed things like grief. It allowed people to realise that they too could ‘break’ as all human beings.
“In the film, Mpondo says, “I became the torturer a long time ago.” What interests me about that is it is a brilliant metaphor of not just South Africa but our whole world, to understand what happens when enemies have to live together. There is something about the intimacy of old enemies who try together (to live on).”
Director Hooper says he did not deviate from the novel because “Gillian (the author) had so much knowledge about the TRC hearings and there was so much to be gained from the accuracy of the novel. I would refer to it for greater guidance. The challenge was to reduce the length of the novel because it probably takes ten hours to read the book.”
As a British filmmaker, the idea of the film grabbed him immediately, especially in its context of the TRC hearings. “At a time in the world when the foreign policies are aggressively militaristic, to make a story about the civil war, and to talk abut words like forgiveness and truth in a political context, I felt, could be very helpful all across the world.”
There was a point in time in South Africa, when the country could have plunged into bloodbath, says Hooper. “I think the fact that Nelson Mandela came out of the prison, where he suffered as much as anyone and he said – ‘I forgive my captors’ – provided leadership to the country.”
And that message of forgiveness, he says, is the underlying message of the film, “which gets inside everyone’s realities, which is more complicated than simply saying good or evil.”
Director: Tom HooperWriter: Troy Kennedy-MartinBased on the novel by: Gillian SlovoProducers: Ruth Caleb, David M. Thompson, Anant Singh and Helena SpringCinematography: Larry SmithMusic: Rob LaneEditor: Avril BeukesCast: Hilary Swank, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jamie Bartlett, Marius Weyers and Ian Roberts