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The Art of Politics and Passion : ‘A Dry White Season’ is overpowered by a little film, ‘Mapantsula,’ in depicting the plight of South African blacks

Do we have to endorse mediocre art in the service of good politics? The question arises in the wake of four showings of “A Dry White Season” at a Johannesberg film festival two weeks ago.

That the film would be profoundly disturbing to Johannesberg’s white audiences is hardly surprising. Set in 1976, its action scenes begin with the incident that sparked the Soweto uprising: the government’s attack with dogs and tear gas and bullets on black schoolchildren marching peaceably in a demonstration against their educational system. It became a massacre, and by the time the riots that erupted in its wake were over, there were more than 300 dead, a great many of them children.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 22, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Page 111 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
South Africa--In Sheila Benson’s Oct. 15 commentary, the director of “Mapantsula” was identified as a black South African. Oliver Schmitz is a white South African who collaborated on the screenplay with Thomas Mogotlane, the black South African who starred in the film. The two used a mixed crew to shoot the movie in the black township of Soweto and in Johannesburg.

And that’s the film’s first quarter-hour. Unmistakably effective, “A Dry White Season” also includes graphic scenes of torture by the government’s special forces. From published reports of torture in that country, these examples, agonizing as they are, are mild. No wonder white Johannesberg audiences are shocked. They are publicly confronting crimes done in their name.

Of course it moves audiences--everywhere. How can scenes of torture and of the death of children not? But “A Dry White Season” lets audiences congratulate themselves on feeling fury at the death of children--it doesn’t take the further step of forcing audiences to feel complicity in these deaths. And setting the film in the past begs the issue. A generation of black children have grown up since in Soweto under virtually the same conditions: They are still harassed, they are beaten, some have been murdered and their educational system still cripples them.

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You can’t help but wonder what the effect of a superb film on apartheid would be. Because “A Dry White Season” is a tract, a dry rerun of “Cry Freedom,” with none of that film’s visual sweep (whatever else its faults) and with nothing new to tell us. It’s filled with obvious, earnest performances--Marlon Brando’s ironic and subtle one is the only exception--and unresonant writing.

And, in an ending added by the director, it answers crimes of murder by the Nazi-like whites, personified by “Das Boot’s” Jurgen Prochnow, with an act of murder by an improbable black man, played by Zakes Mokae, omnipotent, omnipresent and armed--in 1976. In addition to improbability, decades of Gandhi-like practices by black South Africans are sacrificed in favor of one “satisfying” moment of revenge. You can’t help wondering what Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Tutu or activist Anglican leader Beyers Naude would make of this image, the lingering last one of the film.

There were reasons to have every hope for “A Dry White Season,” one of only a handful of mass-audience features on apartheid in recent years. Even though it’s the adaptation of a novel by a white South African, Andre Brink, and it takes us, yet again, through the white experience of apartheid, “A Dry White Season” comes from a black film maker, Euzhan Palcy.

Admittedly, Palcy is from Martinique--and Paris--not South Africa. We could still hope she would inform her film with facets of life under apartheid that we’d never seen before. We could hope for the sort of complexity of characters, the personalization of moral dilemmas that were detailed in Chris Menges’ superb “A World Apart.”

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But “A Dry White Season’s” screenplay by Palcy and Colin Welland has no insights into life on either side of the color line. It deals in characters who are either improbable, like Mokae’s almost-magical taxi driver, Stanley, or who are already old friends on the movie screen: the highly placed Afrikaner who is completely ignorant of life around him. The black township family, scarred, saintly, cut down before us, one after another. (In “A Dry White Season” a black schoolboy is killed, his father is killed, his mother is killed . . . but when our newly awakened white man is killed, then attention is paid. The equation is insultingly out of kilter.)

There is a film of comparison to “A Dry White Season,” not mainstream and simplified and certainly without the draw of major stars, but one that drops us right down into life in the townships and trusts that we’ll form our own conclusions about the vice-grip of racism. Called “Mapantsula” (“thief”), it was shot, guerrilla-style, in Soweto and Johannesberg by black first-time director Oliver Schmitz, who draws a portrait of day-to-day township life as we rarely get a chance to see it.

Schmitz knows better than to make his contemporaries saintly sufferers; the tone of his raw, unsparing film is closest in feeling to the Jimmy Cliff Jamaican classic, “The Harder They Come.” His characters are a rich mixture: hard-working young women who spend their days as housekeepers in upscale white kitchens; older residents who’ve somehow learned to survive despite their daily indignities, and petty crooks like the film’s central character, who likes to call himself Panic. “Mapantsula,” isn’t perfect; it has its share of simplistic characterizations, but as a lesson in the details of black South African life, “A Dry White Season” can’t touch it.

Cynical, streetwise and as apolitical as they come, Panic is caught in a routine police sweep of blacks on Johannesberg’s streets after curfew and tossed in a tank with a group of political activists. One by one, each greets the others: “Forward!” “Power to the people!” “Comrades!” Shoved in their midst, Panic greets then with a hip, “Hi gents, how is it?”

Sensing a weak link, the police try to force Panic to spy for them, as his fellow prisoners begin a hunger strike, and in a flashback Panic reviews his raffish, checkered life. Panic is an unfashionable black hero--he’s ignoble, crummy and there’s no one, buddy or lover, he hasn’t yet let down in his life. But when he makes the moral choice he does at the film’s end, terrified and sweating, and in quite literal fear of his life, it’s more moving than all the halo shots of Steve Biko in the world. It becomes a moment impossible to shake off. There’s a quality of reality to it that well-intentioned films will have to co-opt if they’re going to make their important messages anything more than political night letters.

“Mapantsula,” which has no distributor, has begun to make the rounds of film festivals, including this year’s AFIFest, as well as Toronto’s recent Festival of Festivals. It will have a one-night screening, Tuesday at USC as part of their “Signs of Hope” series, Room 101, Taper Hall of Humanities, 7 p.m. For information call (213) 743-2666.


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