Category Archives: South Africa

Disgrace (2008)

I was attracted to the film Disgrace (2008) for two reasons: it’s based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee (which I read a few years ago) and also because it features John Malkovich. Regular readers of my blogs know that I am intrigued by the book-film connection. Films based on books don’t have to be strictly faithful to the original material, as far as I’m concerned, and sometimes directors/screenwriters offer a slightly different interpretation as they distill down 300 + pages into a 90 minute film. Now that I’ve said that, I can also add that, yes, most film versions of book are disappointing. Disgrace, however, does not fall into that category.

Disgrace focuses on middle-aged professor David Lurie (John Malkovich) who teaches courses on the Romantic poets. Married and divorced twice, he lives alone in Cape Town and teaches at the university. He’d like his weekly standing appointment  with a black prostitute to expand into something else, but she shoots that idea down. Then he spies a young student named Melanie (Antoinette Engels) who’s enrolled in one of his classes, and they strike up a relationship of sorts. After a few awkward, clumsy sexual encounters, Lurie finds himself in front of a university committee investigating his behaviour with Melanie. Arrogant and unrepentant, Lurie is fired. He retreats to his daughter, Lucy’s remote farm where he plans on writing about Byron. But the peaceful haven he expected is an entirely different and hostile world. With a growing sense of unease, Lurie finds himself volunteering in the local veterinary clinic where Bev Shaw (Fiona Press) euthanizes a steady stream of homeless pets while trying to treat a range of animals with few resources.

Lucy (Jessica Haines) maintains the farm and sells her produce at a local market without the help of her lesbian lover (who returned for unknown reasons to Cape Town). Now a middle-aged black man named Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), who just won a land grant and whose farm is adjacent, assists Lucy with the heavier, larger projects. Lucy’s easy-going relationship with Petrus makes Lurie uneasy. All the other whites live in compounds and are armed and ready. Lucy, on the other hand, is a sitting duck….

Something horrible happens, as we expected it to, but it’s how the characters react that makes this film so vital. This is a deeply complex film that throws its characters into moral quagmires–in Lurie’s case the initial quagmire is of his own making, but as the film develops, the quagmire is due to the social disaster which surrounds all the characters, and there are no easy answers. While it can’t be ignored that Disgrace is a parable for race relations in S. Africa, its structure doesn’t feel false for one moment. The characters are very real people, and for the second half of the film, I found myself becoming very annoyed with Lucy (and shouting “what the hell are you thinking?” at the television) thanks to her choices.  I don’t remember being that angry with Lucy in the book (which has freer range for its complex ideas), so perhaps it’s time for a re-read.

Disgrace examines the use of power in relationships–this is seen through Lurie’s patently false ‘relationship’ with Melanie. He refuses to see that this was never a relationship between equals and that while initially Melanie was at the wrong end of the power dynamic, she subverted the power relationship only when she found her position untenable. Lurie, for his part, acts like the arrogant white man of privilege–although he’d probably deny that he operates in life with that inherent sense of privilege if you suggested it to him. There’s the sense that he selected both the prostitute and Melanie (women of colour) because their positions allowed him to keep control–or so he thought. Then there’s what happens to Lucy. How does that fit in the spectrum of male-female-black-white power subversion?  As the film progresses, Lurie comes to understand that there’s a shift in S. African society, and that he must find a place within the new order even as he straddles two worlds–his home in Cape Town complete with a home office lined with books on the Romantics, and the raw Eastern Cape farmland pulsating with the proximity of violence and death.

Author Coetzee is a vegetarian and an animal activist, and both of these elements are apparent in this excellent film. Directed by Steve Jacobs.


Filed under Drama, South Africa

Stander (2003)

“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.

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Filed under South Africa