I travelled widely in South Africa during the worst period of Apartheid. I visited townships including Soweto. I stayed on a farm in the Orange Free State and visited universities in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, and went to Port Elizabeth to meet Athol Fugard.
I came to admire the courage of those people, black and white, who were opposing the system including Van Zyl Slabbert an Afrikaner who was leading the parliamentary opposition at the time. I saw his wife spat upon in the street by an Afrikaner who felt her husband had betrayed his race.
Like everyone else I was exhilarated by Mandela's triumph and his moral victory and generosity. I was deeply moved by Antjie Krog's book and her account of covering the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, a brave attempt to heal the deep divisions and wounds in the wake of Apartheid and I seized the opportunity of making a film from it.
As an outsider, albeit a sympathetic and somewhat informed one, I had trepidations about telling a story that was so important to South Africans. However, my South African friends convinced me that only an objective foreigner could find a way through the complexities of the problem and with the help of a wonderful South African crew I determined to make it as authentic as possible and I shot it in a simple unadorned manner.
It was the most emotionally overwhelming experience of my career, dealing on a daily basis with the pain and agony of all those stories from the Apartheid past.
When I was preparing the film perhaps the most important decision I had to make was the casting of Anna. Half the female stars in Hollywood and Europe were lining up to play the role. I chose Juliette Binoche because of her emotional depth and intellectual honesty. I looked again at Kieslowski's film "Three Colours: Blue" and marvelled at her ability to be utterly vulnerable in expressing grief without the slightest edge of self-indulgence or self-pity. Working with her has been a revelation to me. How can anyone be as fragile and as strong as she?
Sam Jackson on the other hand is a skilful, witty ironic actor who can give you everything on the first take. So each of these actors required something different from me, so that I could bring them to the point of making the scene together. They had a deep respect for each other's techniques.
To match Juliette, Sam reached into his private emotions, which I suspect he usually hides from the camera, and Juliette responded to Sam's brilliant ability to improvise around a scene. The love story between Anna and Langston, black and white, mirrors the conflict and reconciliation of the black and white South African communities, and their relationship resonates with the stories recounted at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This experience has taught me about the possibility of making the world a little better. It's truly wonderful that South Africa, which has suffered so terribly from racism, is now able to teach the world a lesson in healing. My fond hope is that the film, which is dedicated to Nelson Mandela and the oppressed of South Africa, will have captured some measure of this spirit.
Every once in a while, somewhere in the world, a miracle occurs and the human spirit triumphs, seemingly, against all odds. "In My Country", first and foremost, is a celebration of such a miracle.
After the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, a miracle in itself, the new leaders sought to expose the truth about the extent of the atrocities committed by the previous regime, bring closure to what had been centuries of oppression and create an environment in which all South Africans could start afresh. Out of this desire to reconcile the past, the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was born. "It was a way of giving some space and light to what had happened," says director, John Boorman.
What made the TRC unique was that it was an African solution to an African problem. Instead of introducing a war crimes tribunal, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others looked to the African custom of UBUNTU to bring closure to past sufferings. Ubuntu, is a philosophy of humanism, emphasising the link between the individual and the collective, its premise being that what hurts one, hurts all and the actions of one person will impact on all. It seeks to unite all people through an understanding of what makes us the same, rather than what makes us different from one another. Ubuntu strives to create harmony amongst all people by absolving transgressions, rather than seeking retribution.
"To come up with the notion that there could be a middle way, that people could reach a kind of cathartic experience by a confrontation between the victim and the perpetrator - where the perpetrator speaks honestly, sometimes courageously, about his actions and where forgiveness and amnesty are the hoped for results, rather than retribution, had a great appeal to me as a human being," says producer, Robert Chartoff.
The TRC was not without opposition. Memories of other international war crimes tribunals had doomsayers suggesting that the TRC would open the way for a witch hunt, persecution and prosecution, thereby negating any chance of reconciliation. Also, amongst the families of victims, there was a sense that this was yet another initiative aimed at whitewashing the actions of white South Africans. "It was criticized because the black population had been so oppressed by these people and did they not have the right to revenge?" comments director, John Boorman.
South Africans watched in horror and revulsion at the revelations at the TRC hearings and, for many, it was the very first time that they had been forced to confront the full extent of the depravity of the Apartheid regime, a regime that they had supported and left unchecked for so long. While perpetrators appearing before the TRC were able to find a measure of absolution, it was far more difficult for everyday, guilt-ridden, white South Africans, disgusted and appalled at their own culpability, to forgive themselves for their blindness towards the suffering of their fellow citizens, and also to somehow find forgiveness from those they had knowingly or unknowingly made to suffer.
This dismay and vulnerability found a voice in the form of Afrikaans poet, Antjie Krog who was commissioned to cover the TRC hearings for state radio and the Mail and Guardian newspaper. Her very human reaction to the hearings and extremely moving dispatches spoke for many. "Antjie really brought to life the incredible pain that people had suffered," says scriptwriter, Ann Peacock. "We all knew that the apartheid system had caused great suffering, but we never knew the full extent. Antjie showed us how terrible it really was and we felt ashamed."
One of the issues that Antjie brought out into the open was the question of belonging. Was it possible that former white colonists could possibly regard themselves as Africans? In covering the TRC hearings, Antjie was forced to examine the very core of her belief system, her heritage as a white Afrikaner and in so doing find a way of transcending her own feelings of guilt, the culpability of her forebears and reaffirming her African-ness.
Krog's extremely personal and introspective book, Country of My Skull, is an insider's view of the TRC process, its pitfalls and its triumphs but, more than that, it is a magnificent exploration of the soul of a nation desperately trying to exorcise its past and find a way forward, unencumbered by the shackles of its often painful past.
Despite its limitations, the TRC was an extraordinary success whereby a country's humanity and dignity was tested to its limit and shown to be far greater than could ever have been conceived. In revealing the truth of what had gone before, accepting responsibility and seeking true forgiveness, perpetrators had helped to close one of the most painful chapters in South African history. It stands as a lesson in humility and forgiveness, the likes of which the world has seldom seen. "The specific experience belongs wholly to the South African people, but the message of the TRC is for everyone," comments Lynn Hendee. "Clearly, this is a story that has to be told to as many people in the world as possible."
Adapting Krog's book for screen was a labour of love for Ann Peacock who spent four years working on the screenplay. "I come from South Africa and understood many of the issues that Antjie grapples with in the book," says Peacock. "What I actually set out to do when I wrote the screenplay was to answer two questions, namely how we do the unthinkable and is it enough to tell the truth? I wanted to use a personal story, that of Anna and Langston to inform us about the universal story about perpetrators committing atrocities. This was a way of enabling us to understand what seemed so incomprehensible."
Peacock has created two outsiders, Langston and Anna, as the main characters so that the audience, as outsiders themselves, could most easily relate to this extraordinary story. "Ann has fictionalised the book for a feature film approach, rather than a documentary style," says Hendee. "This gave us the chance to introduce the TRC and its context through these characters' eyes."
Peacock has also introduced Col. De Jager, the embodiment of evil and a man responsible for the terror unleashed by a paranoid government on its own citizens. "It was interesting to me to discover how it is possible that anyone can become like De Jager," says Peacock. "Is he some sort of monster that just sprang out of nowhere or was he just like any one of us? Do we all have it within us to become so misguided, so evil?"
In choosing which hearings to include in the script, Peacock chose those that had moved her the most and which she felt illustrated most dramatically the degree of depravity to which those charged with carrying out the orders of the government had sunk and the complexity of the TRC process. "I mixed fact with fiction to do this," says Peacock. "I wanted the Hearings to be seared into the memory of the viewers so they would never forget them. Many people asked me why I chose the old man who wanted his trees back because in the scheme of things, this seems a small loss. However, for this man, in the context of his life, the loss of those trees was huge. The act of the perpetrators was so vindictive, spiteful and unnecessary. The point is that you cannot try and compare degrees of perpetration and loss."
Inspired by the questions raised in Krog's book, Peacock became increasingly fascinated by the issue of truth. "I believe that truth has a reality that exists and exerts a power, irrespective of whether the truth is known or not," explains Peacock. "The fact that the South African government covered up the truth did not diminish the power of those acts on the psyche of the country. Perpetrators were dehumanised by the atrocities they committed, elaborate lies and justifications had to be manufactured. Lies bred more lies and a culture of deceit developed, a culture of not questioning authority."
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
When Washington Post journalist Langston Whitfield is sent to South Africa to interview Col. De Jager, one of Apartheid's worst perpetrators and report on the TRC, he imagines that this is all some sort of joke on the part of his editor. Why him? As he says to his editor: "I don't need to fly 5000 miles to watch a bunch of white policemen getting away with killing black people. I can do that in my own back yard." However, his journey into the very heart of a nation forces him to abandon all his preconceived ideas and embrace a spirit of forgiveness he never imagined possible. "Langston's journey is a journey of enlightenment," says Peacock. "But he is also every man, in that he is the window through which the outside world experiences the TRC. He is the eyes and ears for the viewer."
"Langston has an American sense of justice, that the punishment should suit the crime, therefore, the idea of forgiveness is foreign, even ridiculous to him," comments Samuel L. Jackson. "In understanding the principal of Ubuntu, he realizes that revenge destroys the person seeking vengeance as much as the one acted upon. Forgiveness and understanding are all things that are achievable if people sit down and listen to one another."
This spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, transcending time and place appealed to producer Robert Chartoff. His determination to bring this to an international audience led him to celebrated director John Boorman. "I had wanted to work with John Boorman again for a long time, but the opportunity never arose. I knew that John had visited South Africa some 20 years ago and was intimately acquainted with the situation in the country. His time in South Africa had a lasting impact on him and, during our discussions through the years, he would often mention the country. I respect his social conscience and I never had any doubt in my mind that there was anyone better to direct this film," says Chartoff.
"John makes it easy for everyone else. He knows exactly what he wants and yet he is also open to suggestions which is an amazing line to tread," says Hendee. "He's creative and wonderful and a sure hand at all times." Boorman's calm, supportive approach provided a perfect environment in which the actors were able to give full reign to the emotional demands of the script. "He has been a gift because he has given me the space to fly and do what I felt like doing," enthuses Binoche. "I think that the sort of energy that a director gives you is necessary to open your wings in order to fly."
"I have seen enough of John's films to know that I really wanted to work with him, the expectation does not exceed the reality," says Jackson. "I have had a good time working with him, I did not expect that he would allow me the freedom that he has given me. The fact that he wants to know how I feel and wants to know my specific process getting to a certain place is very important, it makes you want to give him even more."
"Langston comes with great purpose, but believes that this is just another opportunity for a white man to be whitewashed and absolved of any wrong-doing," comments Boorman. This is certainly Langston's view ahead of his meeting with De Jager. However, he is ill prepared for the cat and mouse games that De Jager plays or the psychological toll that his meeting with De Jager will have.
"The script is pretty upsetting and poses many difficult questions," says Brendan Gleeson who plays De Jager. "I think this man was at the very centre of power to the extent that he had a license to do whatever he wanted, and did so, he was then simply abandoned by the people who had sponsored him. A lot of what he felt in terms of justifying his own actions has to do with loyalty and duty and the notion of the hierarchical procession towards God in some very manic kind of a way."
Cut off from the hierarchy that protected him, De Jager is powerless, vulnerable and isolated. "I think that it is the loneliness that leads De Jager to talk to this American interviewer the way he does," says Gleeson. "He's about to spill the beans, but doesn't know where to turn. Part of him wants to share and a part of him wants to be recognised as a fellow human being even though everybody has demonised him. He's a very terrifying character, but at the end quite vulnerable. It is only through humanizing somebody like De Jager that we are able to understand him or learn about him."
De Jager's constant taunting awakens in Langston his own deep-seated hatred and Langston comes dangerously close to losing the moral higher ground when his vengeful side surfaces. Faced with what he believes to be the true face of evil, Langston comes within a hair's breadth of giving into his vengeful side and assaulting the Colonel. "Sometimes you have to go through the dark places to get to the light," says Gleeson. "It is a very necessary thing we do to address the darker side and I think we learn from it and in some way we are released of the fear once we face it."
This intense and frequently difficult sequence between Langston and De Jager was shot over a period of one week and placed extreme demands on both actors. "We were both trained and prepared to look inside a character," says Jackson. "There was a camaraderie and we liked each other immediately which helped when we had to go to the venomous parts. Neither of our characters was dominant or submissive, it was like playing a game of tennis, going back and forth not being intimidated by it or the material."
"The great relief I had when I met Sam Jackson was that there was an immediate generosity on his part," comments Gleeson. "He is funny and light but these were very dark scenes between us. I always find it more interesting when work becomes the issue and not personalities. I had so little work to put into presenting a figure that was quite terrifying, given the reaction that was coming from Sam, so we could move into different areas. I do feel that something really special happened." "We enjoyed making the audience sympathise with both sides of the situation - giving them something to think about," adds Jackson.
"Langston is a man who is estranged, not only from his family, but also from his country," says Boorman. This is highlighted by his interaction with Anna. "Anna makes him realize that she is of, from and about this country," says Jackson. This gives Langston pause because he never thought of white people as being African. To hear her say it with such passion and conviction is off-putting to him because he doesn't feel the same way about his own country, America. He doesn't feel welcome there and his is not a country that he would be willing to die for. He learns that he also doesn't belong in Africa, it might be where his ancestors came from, but it is not part of his heart or part of his soul. He's a lost soul adrift in the world."
Anna on the other hand, despite being an Afrikaans woman, has a rooted- ness, a strong sense of belonging and pride in her country. However, in discovering the truth revealed at the TRC hearings, she's forced to examine her identity. "Her language, Afrikaans, in which she has written of love and tenderness and beauty, is now the language of horror, mutilation and death. The people with whom she shares a history, a culture, a sensibility are shown to be monsters," says Peacock. "Does that mean she is one too? Is she tarred with the same brush? How much responsibility must she take for the acts of her people?" "What haunts Anna is that she didn't seem to appreciate was the degree to which this oppression took place," adds Boorman.
Suddenly, Anna who has never questioned her love for her country or, indeed, her sense of belonging, starts to feel vulnerable. The shocking revelations at the TRC detailing the extent of the depravity of the regime she never challenged, mars the idyllic world she thought she lived in. How could she not know what was happening around her? In a way she has been estranged from the very country that she loves, from the people around her, and all this without being aware of it. "She comes to realize, with utter horror, that she has somehow turned a blind eye to things that were going on in her country," says Hendee.
Overwhelmed by the horrendous evidence presented at the TRC hearings, largely against her fellow Afrikaners, Anna's world is shattered and she teeters on the brink of mental collapse. "Anna is a very strong individual and she's strong with a sensitivity. In some ways her ability to relate, as she does, to this story is an element of power. When Anna breaks down, I don't see it as a sign of weakness, it is a kind of strength because she is actually capable of doing so," says Chartoff. Read more … continued
ABOUT THE CASTING
FILMING IN MY COUNTRY