So far as the movie critic is concerned, there’s one very troubling thing about films on the South African situation. You really can’t criticise them. When offerings like Cry Freedom and A World Apart are earnestly addressing the horror of apartheid and the bravery of the black struggle, it can seem embarrassingly churlish for the hack at the back to raise a hand and carp about the sluggishness of the editing rhythms or point to bum nuances in the secondary performances.
Aesthetic niceties aside, the cinema of apartheid poses awkward questions about the relationship between narrative form and commercial viability. Is the simplification of the issues involved, albeit in the service of an appealing storyline, excused by the wide audiences such films can reach? Or, with apartheid handily creating classic celluloid heroes and villains, are the issues deliberately packaged as calculating melodrama to rake in still more money for the movie moguls?
The new Hollywood adaptation of award-winning Afrikaaner author Andre Brink’s novel A Dry White Season has come under fire from one of its stars, none other than Marlon Brando, on precisely the latter point. Set amidst the troubled background of 1976 Johannesburg, the film centres on the progress towards awareness of white secondary school teacher Ben Du Toit, played by Donald Sutherland, as he investigates the death of his trusted black gardener Gordon Ngubene’s young son Jonathan in the wake of the Soweto massacre. As his increasingly public efforts meet with sustained intimidation from the Security Police, forcing the disintegration ofboth families, Ben gradually realises the shameful and
Trevor Johnston talks to novelist André Brink about the new film adaptation of A Dry White Season.
vicious extent of the injustices visited by his fellow Afrikaaners on the black population.
Brando gave his first television interview in sixteen years to point out that not only did MGM recut his scenes (he appears as a liberal lawyer urged by Sutherland to plead on the black family’s behalf), but purposefully blunted the film’s analytic edge to play up the more palatable and potentially more lucrative thriller element. With the suspense quotient certainly heightened from the novel, the ending radically changed, and chief heavy J urgen Prochnow’s police meanie Captain Stolz apparently having trotted out of a World War Two movie on a transfer from the Gestapo, you can sense at least some justification for the balloon man’s badmouthing.
Having seen the film with a big audience, this pundit can attest that, however broad its brush strokes, A Dry White Season damn well works. It engages effortlessly and enrages the viewers’ sympathies, and Martinique-born director Euzhan Palcy can feel more than satisfied by the fervour of response that the film generates. A Dry White Season certainly makes for a confident and auspicious first crack at Hollywood to follow up the promise of her earlier low-budget Caribbean debut Rue Cases Negres. Author André Brink was at the same screening with me and, even though he played no part in the scripting or shooting of the project, he too had a positive response. ‘Obviously, as is the nature of the medium, the book was changed quite drastically in the process,’ he admitted, ‘but I must say
I was very moved by the end result. In fact, some of the things they changed I wish I‘d thought of myself.‘
THE EDGE OF THE BRINK
The South African censors were less impressed, and the film follows in the footsteps of Cry Freedom and Mapantsula by being banned from general release by the Pretoria authorities. Brink himself is no stranger to such treatment: his first novel, 1974’s Looking 0n Darkness, was suppressed for ten years for its controversial treatment of an inter-racial love affair. The novel A Dry White Season was also banned for a year when published in 1979. Currently, however, restrictions on the written word have been lifted, but film and television are closely guarded in terms of the representations of the country‘s turmoil they are allowed to put forward. In South Africa itself, writers and playwrights, in Brink’s words, ‘have to assume the responsibility of plain reporting. One of the main problems in the country is that the white population just doesn‘t know what’s going on.‘
As a literature lecturer at Grahamstown University, Brink, sporting the de rigeur steel-rim glasses of academia and bearing an uncanny vocal resemblance to cricket commentator, Richie Benaud, is well placed to witness how both black and white South African literature’s treatment of the situation has its part to play in changing even the most ingrained attitudes. ‘The one passionate belief that keeps me going is this,‘ he explains. ‘Suppose there’s an ANC government tomorrow, apartheid is dismantled and we enter a new South Africa, that doesn’t mean our problems are solved. The attitudes and perceptions of individuals have to change, and this is where culture operates. Young Afrikaaners have come to me and, it‘s a terrible thing for anyone to have to admit to, they say “until I read this book I never
thought of blacks as human beings.” It seems so obvious but if it means that this is the sort of discovery to be made from a piece of art then it has a role to play.‘
For precisely the same reason, the novelist is adamant that, ‘even if we can’t get the kind ofimages in the film to its intended audience in South Africa, it’s still important to get them on show elsewhere. Ultimately the solution to South Africa’s problems must come from inside the country itself. But the effect of outside pressure should not be underestimated. The economy is in a very difficult state and the government have realised that they have to make some concessions or else the whole thing will go down the drain.‘
For all Brink’s claims that ‘the intended audience‘ for the movie version of A Dry White Season is in South Africa, Hollywood’s attempts at treating apartheid have always been aimed at the American and European box office. So it’s no coincidence that the heroes of Cry Freedom, A World Apart and the current film are the kind ofwhite, middle-class figures that the international audience will have little difficulty in identifying with. The films effectively report injustice and then ask us to share the movement of Kevin Kline’s Donald Woods or Donald Sutherland’s Ben Du Toit towards action, playing off their fundamentally humane (rather than political) reactions against the indifference of a secondary character (Janet Suzman’s Susan Du Toit, for instance), and the corrupt maliciousness of the police (especially as played by A Dry White
Season ’3 Jurgen Prochnow).
The danger in this strategy is that the films can often seem to be using the atrocious treatment of the black
8 The List 9 - 22 February 1990