Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Dry White Season

A Dry White Season is sort of a strange movie to write about. The direction is ok, even the writing is only ok, and yet because of its historical setting it has a gravity and emotional impact (at least for me) that few movies do. Historical movies often annoy me because I think that attempting to recreate a moment in history is an easy way to artificially inject significance. People remember the events and consequently the film-maker doesn't have to actually engage the viewer and make them feel or think -- they can just evoke certain events to achieve emotional and intellectual engagement from the audience.

With a movie like A Dry White Season that issue is further complicated. When it was released apartheid South Africa was still very much a reality and the film was a challenge, a protest film. I would imagine that a large part of the goal of everyone involved was to bring the realities of apartheid to people's attention. Apartheid is over and the problems facing South Africa are an entirely new set, so how does the movie hold up?

My answer is: surprisingly well. The main thing that has amazed me every time I've seen the movie is that it is a very potent reminder of the lessons of state control of information/propaganda to be learned from apartheid South Africa. I would argue that there has never been a state that has more successfully controlled the information its citizens had access to than apartheid South Africa. The reason, as is immediately apparent in A Dry White Season is not that they were better at it than other similar regimes, but because the people having the truth hidden from them wanted it to remain hidden. I suppose it is pretty obvious that it is easier to lie to someone who wants to believe the lie. Parents are often the worst offenders for that -- believing obvious lies, because accepting the truth would be so much more painful. White South Africa is an example of a situation where a whole society and constituency falls into that trap, and the results were, and are, terrible. A Dry White Season is a good reminder that it is important to not accept easy, comforting lies particularly when they come from those in power.

There was one particular thing that I had not noticed on previous viewings, but which struck me as predictive of the violence that has followed the end of apartheid. There is a moment when the camera zooms in on Wellington, a practically non-existant character with maybe two lines. His brother has been murdered by the police, and his father has just been taken away to his death for looking into it. He closes the door after the police and turns back toward the camera, his 6 year old face seething with rage and frustration. The kind of rage and sense of injustice that makes you as the viewer think, "This is the face of someone who will grow up to be a killer." For a film made in 1989 that momentary hint of future violence seems remarkably prescient. There is a whole generation of Wellingtons -- abused, disenfranchised, undereducated, and filled with rage. The end of the injustice of apartheid has not meant the end of the rage and violence it engendered.

If you haven't seen it I highly recommend the movie, the directing is nothing spectacular, the acting is good though nothing spectacular, but the story, setting, and insights it offers make it a very powerful movie.

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