Cinema of rage

Political issues explode on the big screen

Brian D. Johnson September 25 1989

Cinema of rage

Political issues explode on the big screen

Brian D. Johnson September 25 1989

Cinema of rage


Political issues explode on the big screen

They are movies with scenes of soldiers gunning down young children in cold blood. One takes place in a black township of South Africa, another in a village in El Salvador. The fact that the children are actors and that the blood staining their backs is fake does little to dispel a visceral sense of horror and disbelief—especially because the scenes are inspired by actual events, not concocted by a Hollywood screenwriter. The American movie industry usually takes little interest in making or distributing films designed to expose repressive regimes. They tend to lack box-office appeal. But this fall, several major features about the brutal violation of human rights are being released in North America.

It is a cinema of rage. And it had a strong presence among the 322 films screened at Toronto’s 14th annual Festival of Festivals, a 10-day event that ended last week. The most prominent example is A Dry White Season, a Hollywood drama about South African apartheid that opens in Canadian theatres this week. Starring Canadian actor Donald Sutherland and American legend Marlon Brando—making his first screen appearance in nine years—it is a deeply moving and eloquent testament to the necessity of fighting injustice.

The festival also featured Mapantsula—the first major antigovernment movie to be shot by black film-makers in South Africa itself—which will be released later this fall. And Puerto Rican-born actor Raul Julia stars in Romero, a vivid, U.S.made drama based on the life of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop who was assassinated in 1980.

Film-makers in other countries are challenging their governments with aggressive dramas. Fight for Us, an angry feature by Filipino director Lino Brocka, draws incriminating connections between right-wing death squads and the military in the Philippines. And, as currents of democracy surge through Eastern Europe, a new generation of movies is exposing the Stalinist legacy. This month’s Toronto festival mounted a timely retrospective of Polish films, which revealed a pervasive desire in that country for political freedom.

In the West, movies carrying brave statements of political conscience tend to be independently produced on meagre budgets. A Dry

White Season is an exception. It was made for $12 million, has the support of a major studio, MGM-UA, and features Hollywood stars, who worked for a fraction of their normal salaries. It is also the only Hollywood movie ever directed

by a black woman—Euzhan Palcy, a filmmaker from Martinique.

Filmed in Zimbabwe, A Dry White Season is based on a 1979 novel by André Brink, an award-winning South African writer. It is the story of a white Afrikaner who becomes embroiled in the black struggle. Ben (Sutherland) is a teacher who leads a quiet, complacent life in a posh Johannesburg neighborhood. He does not object to white rule or to the police state that enforces it. But events suddenly offend his basic sense of decency. Ben’s gardener, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), learns that his young son has died in police custody after demonstrating with other black schoolchildren against the second-rate quality of education in the township of Soweto. Soon, Gordon suffers a similar fate.

Finally moved to action, Ben takes his case to a liberal lawyer named Ian—an aging warhorse flamboyantly portrayed by Brando. Re-

luctantly, Ian agrees to take the case, correctly predicting that it will only prove again that the South African courts reflect the prejudice of the state. Undeterred, Ben gathers more evidence from the black community and makes contact with a sympathetic journalist (Susan Sarandon). As he becomes obsessed with the cause, his wife Uanet Suzman) brands him a traitor, his family disintegrates and the police close in on him.

A Dry White Season is sometimes didactic, but a movie about apartheid can stand the odd lapse into political exposition. The drama gathers emotion with irresistible momentum. And Brando creates a delightful oasis of sardonic humor midway through the story. Skirting selfparody, he performs with eccentric verve, relishing each scene as if it could be his last.

Like a vintage spirit that has been locked away and almost forgotten, Brando’s talent seems strangely enriched by years of self-imposed exile from the screen. Meanwhile, Sutherland is commanding in the lead role. Giving his most effective performance since portraying a troubled father in 1980’s Ordinary People, he carries the drama with conviction, subtlety and grace. Sutherland says that he accepted the project because it was impossible not to be moved by Palcy’s “fierce commitment.” But he questioned whether movies can effect social change. “Movies follow—I don’t think they ever lead anybody,” said Sutherland. “But they can work as a catalyst and reaffirm what people are already thinking.”

Like previous movies about apartheid—including 1987’s Cry Freedom and 1988’s A World Apart—A Dry White Season focuses on the issue primarily from the viewpoint of a

white character. But the director had little choice. “It was the only way to tell my story,” Palcy said last week. Petite, with exquisite features, she looks more like an actress than a director capable of corralling such strong talents as Brando and Sutherland. But the glamor of her black suede boots and cornrow braids is

undercut by a forthright manner. She explained that she was unable to sell a South African story from the viewpoint of black characters. “In Hollywood,” she said, “it’s impossible to make a movie with a black person in the lead role, unless it’s Eddie Murphy or Bill Cosby.” Discovering Brink’s novel, she said, made her realize that she could focus on white characters while maintaining a black perspective.

Even then, Palcy had bitter disagreements with executives at Warner Bros., the studio originally involved in the project. “They were more interested in a love story,” she said. “They wanted a Robert Redford or a Paul Newman to play the lead.” The director was so determined that the focus stay on apartheid that, in adapting the novel, she eliminated the romance between the teacher and the journalist—as a result, Sarandon’s role seems truncated. Warner Bros, dropped A Dry White Season after Cry Freedom’s lukewarm showing at the box office. MGM-UA picked it up and accepted Palcy’s vision.

Without Hollywood benefactors, Mapantsula was filmed under the noses of government authorities in Johannesburg. Its producers raised the $ 1.8-million budget from local investors who were mainly interested in taking advantage of generous tax incentives for the South African film industry. The film-makers led authorities to believe that it was just an ordinary gangster movie. In fact, the main

character is a petty criminal who is thrown in jail with a group of anti-apartheid activists. A series of flashbacks shows him gradually acquiring a political conscience. Directed and cowritten by Oliver Schmitz, a black film-maker trained in Cape Town, Mapantsula explores the anti-apartheid struggle from the inside. And it makes its points without preaching.

Politics mix with religion in Romero, another movie about one man’s political awakening, which opens in Canadian theatres next month. Its American producer, a Roman Catholic priest in the Paulist order named Ellwood Kieser, first planned to make a TV movie. He said that various networks’ executives rejected the idea because “it was depressing, controversial, and there was no love interest.” He then tried to sell Romero to studio executives.

“They said this is more reali_

ty than the theatregoing public can handle,” Kieser recalled. In the end, he raised Romero’s $4.1-million budget from church groups, individuals and private foundations.

And Julia—whose previous roles range from an imprisoned revolutionary in Kiss of the Spider Woman to a Mexican drug lord in Tequila Sunrise—agreed to work for oneseventh of his normal salary.

Like A Dry White Season,

Romero demonstrates how a timid bystander can be galvanized by events. When Oscar Romero is named archbishop,

El Salvador’s authorities consider him a safe, conservative choice. But the murder, torture and disappearance of ci-

vilians finally provoke him to speak out against the regime. Julia invests the character with quiet power in a performance so controlled and low-key that his character’s eventual commitment hits like a bolt of lightning. Australian director John Duigan creates a searing portrait of repression in El Salvador. But, while neither rejecting nor endorsing the guerrilla cause, the movie glamorizes Christian sacrifice with disconcerting beauty. The slow-motion choreography of Romero’s assassination—he is shot while preparing communion—is an overeager attempt to canonize him.

Kieser says that he deliberately toned down the politics of the movie. And Julia denies that it even has a political viewpoint—“Romero was just a regular guy with a lot of guts. It’s not a church movie, not a message movie, or anything but a human drama.” Declared Julia: “Over 70,000 people have died in El Salvador—what’s political about getting killed?”

Politics and massacre are inseparable in Brocka’s Fight for Us, a factually based drama about atrocities by rightwing vigilantes in the Philippines. His main character is an ex-priest and former guerrilla who openly campaigns against human rights violations under the rule of President Corazon Aquino. But he discovers that death squads receive tacit support from both the military and the church. And, after the brutal murder of friends and family, he loses faith in peaceful reform and rejoins the guerrillas. Brocka based his drama on events documented by Amnesty International. Financed by French investors, Fight for Us was filmed clandestinely in the Philippines, where it is has been banned.

_ Directors attacking the

cruelty of regimes in their own countries are clearly at risk. And their work is often banned. Interrogation, a 1982 Polish drama about torture under Stalinism, has never been screened in Poland. Its director, Richard Bugajski, now lives in Toronto, where his movie finally found an audience at last week’s festival. Despite the best efforts of police and censors, the reality of political repression stubbornly finds its way to the screen. Meanwhile, Hollywood has yet to be convinced that commitment and commerce are compatible.