John Boorman (The General, Excalibur) at 72 is one of the senior directors in the film industry. As with Clint Eastwood, 74, Michelangelo Antonioni, 92, Manoel de Oliveira, 98(!), and Sidney Lumet, 79, (all still working, all familiar names at awards times) the experience of decades of filmmaking and the experience of long life itself combine to create some of the best product on celluloid. None, of course, is immune to failure, but that comes with the risk-taking that is part and parcel of the creative process. At their best, these directors–as wildly different as their styles are–know how to tell a good story, peeling away the digressions and excesses.
Boorman’s latest, In My Country, is based on a memoir by Antje Krog, a poet and journalist in South Africa, who, for two years (1996-97), covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, following the end of apartheid. The idea of the hearings was in itself remarkable. Not focused on punishment, as might be expected, but on reconciliation, the perpetrators faced their victims or the survivors of their victims, confessed and then apologized in exchange for amnesty. Over 21,000 testified.
From the start, Boorman contrasts the extraordinary beauty of the South African landscape with the inhuman oppression suffered under apartheid. The story follows the experiences of Anna (Julliette Binoche) and a black American journalist, Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), as they follow the hearings from town to town and learn of the horrors of torture, mutilations, rape and murder that permeated the very texture of life in South Africa. Whites and blacks alike are implicated, and the great Nazi excuse, "I was only following orders," returns to haunt the pursuit of accountability. One perpetrator even mewls, "I would have lost my pension if I refused an order."
Anna comes from an Afrikaner family who disapprove of her role in publicizing the hearings and don’t share her optimistic hopes for reconciliation for the long-divided nation. Whitfield has his own doubts about the process, his bitterness growing out the the Black American experience. In the course of events and the revelation of secrets, infinite gradations of gray replace any easy black-and-white representation of a tragic history in need of purging.
In My Country isn’t constructed with the dramatic core of a protagonist/antagonist conflict and thus lacks a strong narrative drive. Yet the script so intelligently explores the history, the many varieties of experience, and the profound need to make sense out of madness and to find emotional peace in its aftermath, that the film sustains a deep and moving involvement throughout.
Binoche (Chocolat, The Widow of St. Pierre) serves up one of her finest performances, starting as the coolly professional reporter and building in a crescendo of emotion as the cumulative impact of the revealed atrocities grows. Jackson (The Caveman’s Valentine, Unbreakable) is a natural as her foil and Brendan Gleeson (Cold Mountain, Gangs of New York) is highly effective the man you will love to hate. The soundtrack is highlighted by choral singing of Black South African freedom songs which are notable both for musical sensuality and emotional verity.