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Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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After the fall of Apartheid, in the late 1990s, the new government of South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called those who had violently enforced Apartheid to tell their stories. The worst of the worst were imprisoned, but those who were “just following orders” and were willing to speak openly about what they had done were essentially forgiven.

There are undoubtedly some powerful stories buried in the TRC reports. Those stories deserve to be heard by a large audience, which is what film is good for. But that doesn’t automatically make In My Country, a fictionalized story about two reporters who covered the TRC, a good film.

Ebony and Ivory

Anna and Langston find comfort in each other's arms
Anna and Langston find comfort in each other’s arms

Juliette Binoche plays Anna Malan, a radio reporter for ABC and an Afrikaner. She and Langston Woodfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a reporter for the Washington Post, meet over expository, softball questions at a press conference that marks the beginning of the TRC. Through the course of the film, the two reporters follow the Commission from town to town, giving director John Boorman a recurring excuse to expose moviegoers to TRC reports.

Meanwhile, Langston tries a few back-channel connections to get an interview with De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), one of the bigger fish in the Apartheid pond. And Anna gets in touch with her family, who live on a ranch, behind a fence, with at least one loyal black servant.

Langston and Anna spend a lot of time together. They mostly talk shop, but what Langston really wants to know is how white liberals like Anna could have allowed Apartheid to continue for so long. At one point (heightened by the most striking cinematography of the film), Langston insists on an answer. Anna feels innocent of the crimes being told in the TRC. She didn’t participate; she didn’t support Apartheid, and she didn’t know just how bad things were until she started hearing the testimony.

Now imagine Jackson in his most booming, righteous voice: “You didn’t know?!” The repression and violence were so pervasive, so institutionalized, how could anyone not know, especially from a family with a huge fence and black servants? “Not knowing” would require a willful blindness. At least, that’s what Jackson’s black American reporter seems to be saying. Yes, she concedes, they all “knew,” sort of. Nobody spoke of it, but the rumors were all there. The information was available if you really wanted to see it.

Boorman wisely lets the scene resonate. We can imagine that, like Nazi atrocities to German citizens, the horrors of Apartheid were common knowledge to Afrikaners, but never well-documented or -publicized enough to act on. And yet, that doesn’t entirely excuse the German citizen or the white Afrikaner from some moral responsibility. Putting a face to that complicit guilt is one of the things In My Country does well.

Black and Blue

The best thing In My Country does is to portray moral fatigue. After days of testimony about the most horrible crimes, committed in her own country and in her name, Anna cracks. A white victim of Apartheid (there were some, but not many) is testifying about burying a small piece of his son’s brain — all that he could find of him. Anna begins to laugh. She’s simply had all the horror she can take and she snaps. Langston takes her out of the hearing and they all — Langston, Anna, and her sound man Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) — go get drunk.

Liquored up, outraged out, and caught in a remote town with only one bed & breakfast, Anna and Langston find themselves in bed together, and they decide they like it. It’s another form of comfort in this horrifying assignment.

Black and White

Boorman tries to make a complete film by repeating the themes of the TRC in the lives of his characters. Each has his or her own personal reconciliation to undergo. Anna must comprehend and then cope with Langston’s accusation that, as a white in South African, she is complicit in these crimes. Both Anna and Langston have to come to terms with their extramarital fling. Even Dumi the sound man has some criminal associates from his Apartheid days seeking payback.

It’s generally a good idea to repeat a theme in a movie. But In My Country is so pedagogic — the themes are so transparently included — that it feels more like a sermon than storytelling. Ultimately it’s the director who must take responsibility, but Jackson and Binoche, while good individually, never really share much chemistry. It’s easy to see them as reporters covering an exhausting, frustrating story, but it’s harder to see them as anything closer than colleagues, which makes the sin of their adultery seem tacked-on.

In My Country plays like a well-meaning, made-for-TV docudrama intended to give worldwide audiences more exposure to the horrors uncovered in South Africa’s TRC. The story of these reporters doesn’t spring organically from the subject matter, it’s forcibly attached. Some effort is made to hide the seams between the subject and the plot, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s structurally unsound, a forced marriage of two distinct ideas that ought to have their own space.