“He’s one man–we’re the damn government.”
Set in apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, the film Stander from director Bronwen Hughes, based on a true story, takes a few liberties with the facts and presents a glamorized, but still riveting and fascinating portrait of a police captain who became the country’s most notorious bank robber. File this film under the heading truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.
The film begins in Johannesburg with Andre Stander (Thomas Jane) and a fellow off-duty officer careening off to Stander’s wedding. Stander, the son of Major-General Frans Stander (Marius Weyers), works in the robbery and homicide division, but he’s called for riot squad duty when black students gather to protest against the use of Afrikaan in schools.
Stander’s participation in the violent riot duty turns out to be a turning point in his life. Disillusioned, and unable to cope with his guilt and a troubled conscience, he starts to fall apart. Eventually he turns away from the gung-ho camaraderie of the police force and secretly enters a life of crime. This occurs almost accidentally when he realizes that “a white man can get away with anything today while the police are busy watching the blacks.” Robbing banks becomes an outlet of sorts for Stander, and he commits a series of bold, daylight robberies. Juggling his bank robbing with his life as a police detective, at times he evens investigates the robberies he committed.
The film follows Stander’s many robberies, his arrest, and his time in prison. Here he befriends Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (David O’Hara). The three men eventually escape and form the Stander Gang–sometimes robbing four banks in one day. A master of disguise, Stander, the most notorious bank robber in South African history, was a dangerous adversary because as a former police officer, he knew exactly how the system worked. One of the film’s unstated ideas is that Stander was well-trained by the system, and then he was in a perfect position to understand and undermine the law when he turned against it. But on the other hand did Stander really turn against the system because he was revolted by his actions or as a disconnected police officer in a corrupt, violent system, did he just dive off on another tangent and go solo?
Stander became a cult hero–partly due to the nature of his daring robberies, but the film indicates that there’s more afoot than just Stander’s brazen style. His life as a bank robber is seen as his method of rejecting authority, and many South Africans identified with Stander’s blatant contempt for the system that he was once a part of. At one point, Stander argues that “you become them or you live at odds with everyone around you.” Robbing banks, to Stander, is the method he chooses of rejecting the society that made him into a killer.
While Lee McCall notes that some of the general public express admiration for the gang (“we’re obviously not the only ones who like to see the tables turned”), Stander’s estranged wife Bekkie (Deborah Kara Unger) doesn’t relate at all to Stander’s life of crime. Bekkie, however, does understand some of Stander’s rage against the system when she acknowledges that everyone at some point wants to “blow this place to smithereens from time to time” but that they “find other ways” of coping.
The film does an excellent job of recreating the ‘feel’ of the 70s, and there are some extremely powerful scenes. The film begins with an aerial view of the suburbs of Johannesburg–the affluent white suburbs with a mosaic of impressive pools. These scenes are in stark contrast to the shantytown shown in the depiction of the 1976 Tembisa riots. The film’s very best scene recreates the explosive tension as blacks and riot police square off amidst the shocking poverty of the makeshift huts. As I watched this very powerful scene, I asked myself how the whites living there ever imagined that apartheid could continue. And of course, I answered my own question…increased violence–even as the riot scene exploded right before my eyes.