“In My Country” (Sony Picture Classics) begins with gorgeous, sweeping pans of the South African countryside punctuated by grainy footage of young black men being beaten to death by white soldiers. Set right after Apartheid, two journalists try to reconcile the country’s beautiful landscape and horrible past. But although the movie raises interesting questions, it doesn’t try to answer them.
The movie is based on a book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where both victims and perpetrators testified. In the movie, the book’s original writer, Afrikkaner poet and journalist Antjie Krog is named Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), reporting on the hearings for a South African radio station. Her family is uncomfortable with her participation in the Commission, as Anna disturbs pleasant dinner parties with questions like, “Can rape be politically motivated?”
Anna believes passionately in ubunti, an African form of justice that emphasizes honest forgiveness over punishment. At the hearings, she meets an American reporter, Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), who thinks the Commission is letting the murderers and torturers off easy. He accuses Anna of being complicit in the genocide as a white beneficiary of the Apartheid government.
Anna is less of a character than a clumsy amalgamation of too many big concepts-truth, guilt, forgiveness, racial discord. Langston too, is more of a construction than a person, speaking for all black Americans and their tenuous relationship with the African continent. Their personal attempts to understand Apartheid and African-ness are undercut by the flimsy romance that inevitably develops between them.
Whitfield rages against his American editors who call the hearings “too remote” to merit front-page placement, but “the film also makes them appear remote, forcing us to look at the story through the eyes of an outsider rather than an African.
It’s hard to imagine that Langston could really forgive Anna so easily if he had lived through Apartheid himself. Clemency may be the right path, but the film is simplifies the issue by suggesting that forgiveness can come so easily. For many outsiders, the details of Apartheid and the justifications of the perpetrators are new, and to skim over them is an indignity.
“In My Country” isn’t a documentary (a fine one, “Long Night’s Journey Into Day,” was already made about the subject) and shouldn’t be judged like one. But it is in the recreations of the hearings, not the formulaic romance, that the film finds its heart. The keen attention to everyday details and impartial camerawork keep the hearings from dissolving into pathos or voyeurism; there’s a dignity to these scenes that Anna and Langston’s encounters simply can not match.
“In My Country” opens Friday in Washington, D.C.