We, The Living

South African theater, jazz, video and commercial film director Ian Gabriel’s first feature, Forgiveness, offers a sensitive probing of the realities of apartheid and its human toll and legacy.

One of twenty-four films from twelve countries at the multi-media twelfth annual New York African Film Festival shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and a month later the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the story of Forgiveness derives from Greg Latter’s simple, incisive script.

Developed over two-and-a-half years and with several drafts, in conjunction with Ian and producer Cindy Gabriel’s Giant Films and DV8 — dedicated to bringing out “genuinely South African digital feature films” — the veteran scriptwriter’s vision is set, not in the country’s tourist-poster hills and beaches, but on the windy Western Cape and Karroo. It is, importantly, six years after the TRC, when the heart and soul’s definition of “amnesty” is painfully wrung out. Equally relevant is the stern Dutch Calvinistic bent of the republic’s small towns, in this case the aptly named real-life fishing village, Paternoster, precariously stuck between unforgiving landscape and sea.

Religious and cultural myths come into play in cross and fish, blood and confession, conversion, shared bread and wine, seashells, nets, wounds, flagellant garden-hose whips, as well as the silent stranger, weapons, the self-appointed posse. Such suggestions enrich the film but are left subtle, so that characters and interactions emerge paramount. The physical background broods and reinforces, too, as Nadine Gordimer’s “ghost of the fecund earth,” but dun colors of high definition are later blown to 35 mm result in a bleached sepia feeling, a strange appropriate tone for this stage.

Giulio Biccari’s camera catches an unshaven greying man taking nerve pills through a road-stained windshield, an outsider arriving in the hard-luck village and who announces that he is a realtor. Father Dalton (Jeremy Crutchley) knows who the visitor really is and doubts his sincere impulses, but arranges a meeting with the coloured, Afrikaans-dialect speaking Grootboom family. The man is Tertius Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), an ex-policeman granted official amnesty for the killing of the family’s elder son, university student Daniel Grootboom, ten years earlier.

Commission verdict notwithstanding, the conscience-stricken Boer seeks to explain to the crippled family, not to justify but to atone, not to God but, as with Judaism’s high holy day Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), to the injured human party. The family, too, has perpetuated an untruth about the boy’s death, though their reactions as individuals differ.

Nursing his own sentiments of guilt, fisherman father Hendrik Grootboom (Zane Meas) recognizes the other’s suffering humanity. Mother Magda (Denise Newman) has withdrawn from light and life, while her teenagers Sannie (Quanita Adams) and Ernest (Christo Davids) harbor anger and vengeance  unapologetically. To that latter end, the daughter pay-telephones Daniel’s three ANC “political terrorist” friends: coloured Llewellyn Mientjies (Elton Landrew), black, dreadlocked Zuko (Hugh Masebenza) and white Luke (Lionel Newton).

With their own personal secrets and lies, the three set out on a two-day drive for revenge and biblical justice. During that time, Coetzee’s anguished presence brings about change, as priest and family reevaluate past and present, most notably Magda, who will regain central matriarchal strength and impart life onto her household after lovingly dancing with her husband to “Tell It Like It Is.”

Within the evil of the past, the characters are confronted with moral choices. Zuko made a choice, for instance, which led to Daniel’s making another. The present has its roots in that past, and Sannie chooses to choose, as does younger Ernest. But while decision-making seems individual, it ripples out to intersect concentric circles with others’ choices. Compassionate and haunted by Calvinism, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great chain of humanity will be unbroken, humbling acceptance and penance exacted of all, and, imperfect but persistent, life will go forward.