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, its story derives from Greg Latter’s simple, incisive script. Developed over two-and-a-half years and 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 between unforgiving landscape and sea.

Religious and cultural myth comes 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 but are left subtle, so that character and interaction emerge paramount. The physical background broods and reinforces, too, as Nadine Gordimer’s “ghost of the fecund earth,” but dun colors of high definition 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 giving out that he is a realtor. Father Dalton (Jeremy Crutchley) knows who the visitor really is, doubts his sincere impulses, but has arranged 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 ten years earlier of elder son, university student Daniel Grootboom.

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, have 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 teenagers Sannie (Quanita Adams) and Ernest (Christo Davids) not very silently harbor anger and vengeance. 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 to her household after lovingly dancing with her husband to “Tell It Like It Is.”

Within the evil of the past, there were choices, moral choices. Zuko made one, for instance, which led to Daniel’s making another. Present has its roots in that past, and Sannie chooses to choose, as does younger Ernest. But while decision seems individual, it ripples out to intersect concentric circles from others’ choices. Compassionate Calvinism-haunted 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.