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‘Dry White Season’ Jolts South African Audience

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Times Staff Writer

“A Dry White Season,” originally banned in South Africa as a biased and highly emotional threat to public order, opened uncut to a packed film festival house Thursday night, leaving many in its mostly white liberal audience troubled by the stark vision of police brutality and injustice in their homeland.

The film, directed by Martinique-born Euzhan Palcy, was exempted from its “undesirable” label by South Africa’s censorship appeals board for only four screenings at the Weekly Mail Film Festival, where the censors said “discerning adult viewers would be able to judge the film within its South African context.”

Adapted from South African author Andre Brink’s novel, the film, which opened in theaters in the United States last week, concerns a naive white Afrikaner schoolteacher, played by Donald Sutherland, who tries to learn the truth about his black gardener’s death in police custody following the bloody 1976 Soweto riots.

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So convincing was the portrayal of white South Africans’ blindness to their exploding black townships that some viewers here, like secretary Karen Key, left the theater feeling troubled and frustrated.

“All of us as South Africans like to think (police brutality) is not happening even when we know it is,” said Key, 31, who works in a union office in Johannesburg. “Putting it in front of us on the screen . . . is very disturbing. What can an individual do to change things in this country?”

Permission for the screenings, two on Thursday in Johannesburg and two Saturday in Cape Town, ended a weeks-long battle between festival organizers and censors over a half-dozen films, including “A Dry White Season” and five locally produced documentaries and feature films. Each of those movies was initially banned but approved on appeal for the limited arts festival screenings.

The appeals board, and its chairman, Kobus van Rooyen, have since 1979 overturned many bannings by lower-level bureaucrats. Veteran civil-rights lawyer John Dugard says Van Rooyen “has done more to advance the cause of freedom of expression in South Africa than any other person.”

Under Van Rooyen’s direction, the government’s chief censors have routinely taken into account the expected audience for a particular film or book, and they have approved many controversial films for showing in arts festivals.

“A World Apart” was approved for three showings at an arts festival here earlier this year. That acclaimed film, written by Shawn Slovo, was an autobiographical account about her and her mother, Ruth First, a white anti-apartheid activist killed by a parcel bomb seven years ago.

“Cry Freedom,” the Richard Attenborough-directed story of a white newspaper editor’s friendship with black consciousness leader Steve Biko, was approved for general distribution by Van Rooyen and opened in 40 theaters nationwide. But, after the first morning showing in those theaters, it was summarily yanked from projection rooms on the orders of the justice minister. Van Rooyen later received several death threats from right-wing groups.

“A Dry White Season” is one of the most powerful anti-apartheid films ever approved for even a limited engagement in South Africa. The Directorate of Publications, the censors who originally denied the festival’s application to show the film, argued before Van Rooyen’s appeals board hearing Monday that the picture could destroy President Frederik W. de Klerk’s new promises of apartheid reform.

“We cannot see the relevance of the Soweto uprising--probably the worst racial incident in 1976, blowing it up like a balloon and at the end suggesting that the situation here is still the same,” argued Marius Coertze, a state’s attorney representing the censors. “This will definitely not do anyone any good.”

Coertze said the censors also had been concerned that the police force was “portrayed as some sort of Nazi regime,” rioting blacks were shown as “innocent, wide-eyed people” rather than lawbreakers, and the South African judiciary, “recognized throughout the world for its standards and professionalism,” appeared as racist.

Asked Thursday for his personal opinion of “A Dry White Season,” Coertze said: “It shocked me.

“There were some elements of truth in there, but there were also some blatantly biased and untruthful portrayals. I think most South Africans realize there’s something wrong with this system and with police actions in certain circumstances.”

Coertze said, though, that he agreed with the appeals board’s decision. “Perhaps it’s only a story, anyway,” he said.

Lauren Jacobson, attorney for the festival organizers, made a successful case for the film by arguing that “if there is a spirit of reform in the country today, then surely it fits in with such a spirit that this film be shown.”

Jacobson said later that she personally thought the movie was “a very hero-villain, good-bad film--slightly crude in that sense.”

“But it’s an absolutely fair depiction of how a large number of people in this country viewed the events of 1976,” she said. “And very few films about South Africa have accomplished that.”

Van Rooyen didn’t say whether he liked the film, only that it wouldn’t cause any harm if seen by a film festival audience. (It was given a 19-year age restriction, slightly harsher than its R-rating in the United States.)

“The truths in the film should be allowed to speak for themselves, as also should the cliches, the striving for emotional effect, and the biases, of which there are some obvious ones,” he said, singling out the depiction of a South African judge as racially biased.

Palcy said in Toronto this week that she wanted the film, shot mostly in South Africa’s neighboring Zimbabwe to prompt audiences “to feel the same rage I felt” when conducting research for the movie in South Africa.

In South Africa, the audiences cheered a scene, added to Brink’s plot by Palcy and co-writer Colin Welland, in which a villainous white policeman is assassinated.

“We’re getting used to watching ourselves on screen as weirdos with weirdo accents,” said Matthew Krouse, a 27-year-old Johannesburg actor who saw the film. “It was quite a relief to see the South African subject executed with such panache and good humor.

“But no film can reproduce the horrific reality,” Krouse said. “It’s much worse than the narrative can bear. In our lives, there are a lot of loose ends that are not wrapped up.”

The concern that some South African viewers’ feel over the film’s effect, and the effect of other films like it, on their country’s image overseas was reflected by Van Rooyen, who said he regretted “that overseas viewers, who are not cognizant of the present drive for reform, would lack the perspective” of South African audiences.

The film’s local distributors, still smarting from the government seizure of “Cry Freedom” last year, have not applied for permission to formally release “A Dry White Season.” But lawyers say it is highly unlikely that the film would be approved for release to general audiences in South Africa.

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