‘I remember coming home from school and seeing the police riﬂing through the house. books strewn everywhere. The morning after they hauled my mother away to jail. the Johannesburg papers came to our house and took photos of my sisters and me eating breakfast. A very exciting experience.‘ It would be no understatement to remark that Shawn Slovo‘s childhood was hardly the common or garden variety.
Born in South Africa in 1950 of white middle class parents. the Slovo family lifestyle differed from that of their peer group in that Shawn‘s father. Joe. was a member ofthe Executive Committee of the African National Congress. and his wife. Ruth First. Shawn‘s mother. shared with him the distinction ofplaying a leading role in the South African Communist Party. By 1963 however. the authorities had cracked down on political activity; Joe was forced into hiding. and Ruth found herself imprisoned without trial. Now. twenty-five years later Shawn Slovo has turned those traumatic experiences growing up in the struggle against apartheid into a moving screenplay for A World Apart. the debut feature by brilliant British cinematographer (‘hris Menges.
At (‘annes earlier this year. the filtn earned such an emotive response from audiences and critics alike that it was awarded a remarkable triple award for Best Actress. Twelve year-old .lodhi May‘s remarkable assurance in her debut film role as Molly Roth. the character based on Shawn Slovo herself. divided the honours with Barbara Hershey's display of fortitude as her mother Diana. and real-life Harare architect Linda Mvusi. playing the Roths' housekeeper Elsie to genuinely involving effect. To find three excellent female roles in one movie is. ofcourse. some kind of an indication ofthe quality ofthe writing. These are to us extraordinary lives. but the film translates them into a commonplace story of family tensions and pubescent awareness. whose domestic familiarity is somehow both heightened and displaced by the backdrop of political turmoil against which it is played.
Shawn thinks it a good idea to fill me in on the historical context before we go any further. ‘During the Fifties. there was an incredible optimism about the process of democratic protest.‘ she explains. "I‘here was a massive organisation that brought about the burning of passes. rent strikes. bus boycotts. Then the early Sixties began the kind ofclampdown we see today. 1%“ was the first State Of limergency and the 90 Day Detention Act. which was the first of the Draconian laws that are now a feature of South African life. Most importantly the African National (‘ongress was banned inl‘)(i3 and so forced underground. they had to formulate.
the policy of armed struggle because there didn‘t seem to be any peaceful alternative left. especially in the light ofevents like the Sharpeville
Winner ofthree awards at Cannes. the film A World Apart is based on writer Shawn Slovo‘s own experience as the teenage daughter ofwhite activist parents in South Africa. She talked to Trevor Johnston.
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Mere luck meant that Joe Slovo was not with Nelson Mandela on the day of his arrest. but the heat was obviously on and he was soon spirited out ofthe country. leaving his wife to carry on the fight. Now in her late Thirties. Shawn remembers her resentment at the home being torn apart in this way. ‘I suppose in some ways it seems like it‘s all right for the man to go off. to be a bad parent. more so in those days maybe. My mother was just so busy. She was a wife. a mother. a journalist. an activist; she was often the only woman in groupings that were dominated by men. I mean. I would be worrying about a new dress and she'd be worrying about some article or meeting. It was no one's fault. but you do feel an enormous sense of bewilderment and rejection.‘ As Molly cries in the film. ‘What about me‘."
Yet. the course ofevents was to bring a much harsher test for both mother and daughter. L'nder (‘lause 17 ofthe (ieneral Law Amendment Act of 1963. the police had the power to confine any suspect for questioning for a period of up to 90 days. and also had the option of instant re—arrest upon release as many times as they wanted. Ruth First‘s own account [/7 Days tells the story of courage in the face of custodial maltreatment that Barbara Hershey undergoes in the film; while A World Apart also offers the child's experience over the satne period. a
catalogue ofostracism by her friends. friction between herself and the grandmother who came to look after her and her younger sisters. and isolation at the boarding school she was eventually sent to. "l'he insecrity of the whole thing was what was most painful.’ Shawn retninisces. ‘Not knowing when you'd see your tnother again. or really why they’d taken her away; not knowing when you'd see your father again. or where he was or what he was doing.‘
What is tnost impressive about A World Apart is the way in which Molly's sense of confttsion and anger at the way in which the political situation intrudes into the personal. gradually changes to a sense of awareness at the injustice going on around her and a feeling ofsolidarity with her mother in particular. that was not there before. Yet. the young girl's new-found consciousness is formed not out of an abstract political empathy with her parents‘ cause. but from the lessons of her own direct experience. 'You can see the evidence of apartheid on a day by day basis even as a protected middle class child. I have a very strong memory ofstanding at a bus stop with a very long queue of blacks. The bus turns up three-quarters empty. but the seats at the back reserved for blacks are full. and so the bus moves off with tnost of the queue still standing there. like most of white children I also had a black nanny. and the attachment I felt to her. what I learnt about the terrible life she
had. and the fun I had when I went to visit her family in their tiny shack. these things were all very important factors in my realising what was going 0n.’
We talk about the notion of turning your own life into a movie. and Slovo tells me about Saul Bellow's thoughts on the matter: ‘the parts have got to harmonise in a drama. and the parts in one‘s life do not‘. She enthuses about Jodhi May‘s performance. but points out ‘Yes. I know that‘s my experience being played out up there but I don’t confuse Jodhi‘s portrayal with me.‘ Slovo‘s apparent ability to dispassionately discuss still open private wounds is no doubt the result of a the lengthy process ofpromoting a film these days. but there are times when you have to wonder whether she takes it all as coolly as she appears. I know. for instance. and she knows I know. that although it is a crucial scene in A World Apart. she did not learn about her mother‘s suicide until her memoirs were published a couple of years later than the events depicted on screen. Shawn rather curtly confirms the facts.
A few years back she was one of the supporting characters in the l-lollywood cavalcade. a personal aide to De Niro and Scorcese on Raging Bull and King ()fC'omedy. an uncredited script surgeon on .S'ttpergirl and Revolution. far away from her roots in the South African struggle. The reason she turned her attention back there. why she wrote the screenplay for A World Apart to initially get the project rolling. why she now lays bare her innermost self to help make the film the success it unreservedly deserves to be. has everything to do with what happened on August 17. 1982.
At Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique‘s capital Maputo. Ruth First. now Director of Research at the (‘entre For African Studies. was killed by a letter bomb. her assassination tnost probably the work of the South African Security Services.
Yet. out ofsuch tragedy has come the motivation to produce a work of filtnic art that through its very intimacy will attract audiences‘ deepest sympathies. and perhaps in some small way play its part in the continuing effort to change people‘s attitudes about the moral evil ofthe Johannesburg regime. For Shawn Slovo too. it has meant a dark but rewarding journey through the conflicts of her and her country's past. and a reconciliation with her father. who played a significant advisory role on the production.
‘You know. you really don't get over something like that. For about a year after 1982 l was just shattered. But now I do feel that it has helped my understanding. and my father is really. really proud of the movie.‘
A World Apart opens on Friday October I 4. at the ( 'ameo ( 'inema. Edinburgh. and is reviewed in full in theft/tn section tltis issue. The sereenplay and diary by Shawn Slovo is published by Faber. £4. 95.
l l 7 Days by Ruth First is published by Bloomsbury. [4. ()5.
The List 14 — 27 October 198811