Interview with “In My Country” director John Boorman

Hatchet: In the movie it seems that Juliette Binoche’s character was against apartheid but didn’t take a very active role. Why is that?

Boorman: Well, the thing is, what can anyone actually do? That was the problem for people in the Apartheid period. You could protest, and you could get arrested, or whatever. Or if you’re white, you could make a protest but if you went too far you’d be arrested and go to jail for a bit. And that’s all you could do. People did a little bit to salve their conscience, and then they went on with their lives, so that was her dilemma, was that moment where she says to Langston, “I did what I could,” knowing that it was insufficient, and he says, “Yeah. okay. What else can you do.” Every white male had to go into the army, they were conscripted for two years, and if you didn’t want to do that, you went to jail for five years, or the other alternative was to run away, which many did, they left the country. And all of those, whichever course they took, they were damaged by it. If you were in the army, you were obliged to do terrible things that they were haunted by. The ones who ran away felt that they were guilty, they hadn’t been engaged, and the ones who went to jail were traumatized because they were brutalized, and when they came out many were dysfunctional. Everyone was affected, in one way or another, by Apartheid. People like De Jager or De Kock became monstrous creatures who had lost their humanity. It’s terrifying, what a regime of that kind can do to people.

H: The movie suggests that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used a sort of superior form of justice than Western traditional courts. How do you feel about the TRC?

B: The idea in setting it up was trying to bring people together rather than drive them apart. Rather than vengeance and recriminations, trying to find a way of forgiving. This notion of ubuntu comes from African tribal life. Typically a tribe would have one or two hundred people who all know each other intimately, and they didn’t have a prison, so you can’t lock people up. So what you do is you find some other way of dealing with crimes. If someone committed a crime, they talked to him and they tried to find ways of compensating the victim and of having the victim confront him and hopefully finding a way of bringing them together and finding understanding, forgiveness. So there is that racial memory of that all through Africa. The only sanctions other than that were to expel the person from the tribe, and they usually couldn’t survive because the tribes were so interdependent, they couldn’t survive on their own, they either died or went mad. So in extreme cases that was the sanction, otherwise they had ubuntu, and that’s where it derives from, and that’s what Mandela wanted to try to reintroduce into South Africa.

H: How do you think the reconciliation worked in South Africa?

B: The TRC was a tremendous piece of social engineering. It allowed people to tell their stories, to confront their perpetrators, and all the silence and secrecy of that regime, it just blew the top of that, everything came out in the open. But it didn’t solve everything, by any means. It was sort of a gesture towards a larger theme, a story to be told. You see [in the film] that vengeance was still a factor, and not everyone could find forgiveness in their hearts. And their chief problem now is poverty, enormous poverty, these shantytowns immediately fill up with refugees from other parts of Africa and so that’s a big problem. But I found it exhilarating to be there in South Africa, the birth of a nation. And everything is politicized, because everyone was affected, everybody has an issue, the dialectic is so universal and it made me feel that I lived in a consumer society where there’s no ideology, really. Every subject in social life is seen in the light of what the new South Africa should be or is going to be, and I found that very liberating.

H: What do you think the state of filmmaking is right now, given that its hard to get money for this sort of film? Is it harder now than it used to be?

B: Yes, it is. In the late sixties and early seventies, there were a lot of good films made. And the reason was that the studios, with the advent of television, they didn’tct know what to do or what to make, and so they allowed directors to choose the subject and the way it was going to be made, and the directors were in charge, they were the kings at that time. And then, disaster fell: Star Wars. When Star Wars came out it was a huge success, and the studios realized that the audience was fourteen year old boys, and they began to make films for them, that kind of popcorn movie that still dominates. And the middle ground which we occupied at that time completely disappeared and more and more serious films were relegated to this sort of art ghetto where they sit today. The contrast is so enormous between a mainstream movie, that goes on 2,000 prints on opening day weekend and costs 20 or 30 million dollars or whatever it is, and you look at the kind of films that Sony Classics puts out, and they can be considered quite okay if they take $2 million in the whole of America. That’s how big the gap is. Now and again something breaks through like Crouching Tiger, but for the most part there’s an enormous gap.

H: What directors working now do you admire?

B: Well, quite a few. For instance there are two very good directors working in Spain, Almodovar and Amenabar, and in England, Mike Lee-“Vera Drake” is a fantastic film. And here in the States, there are some very interesting directors working. I’ve always liked the Coen brothers.

H: Did you watch the Oscars?

B: No, no. I didn’t even watch it when I was nominated for “Deliverance,” I didn’t come over for it and I didn’t watch it. I did come when I was nominated for “Hope and Glory,” I had two nominations, for producer/director and writer, and I came to that one, but I would never do it again. Just because it’s so boring, and it’s five hours long. My view of it, as a member of the Academy, I’m always arguing that we shouldn’t televise it. That’s what messed it up. Televising it turned it into a fashion show about frocks, whereas it should be a private affair. Now it’s used as a promotional tool, and it’s useful in that respect. But then you get someone like Scorsese who’s torturing himself because he didn’t get an Oscar. And he makes a film like “The Aviator,” which is over-produced, over-directed, overblown, and it’s screaming for an Oscar, saying “Look how clever I am as a director, give me the Oscar quick!” And I admire him enormously. I like very much many of his films. “Goodfellas.”

H: Where did you film for “In My Country”?

B: We were based out of Cape Town, but we shot all over. The TLC traveled to wherever these atrocities had taken place.

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