DIFF review – African Gothic: Apartheid set in Disneyland

2013-07-26 11:49

When a film comes to life on screen we are invited to enter its world and suspend our disbelief – it’s a bubble.

There are few things that burst that bubble as effectively as a bad accent. When an American twang intrudes on an Afrikaner accent I get edgy. When an Afrikaner speaking in Afrikaans is patently English I get edgier. Especially when the film is based on an Afrikaans classic.

Even though she is said to have helped work on a version of the script, I imagine that playwright Reza de Wet would have been left cold by African Gothic, the film version of her play Diepe Grond, which premiered at the Durban International Film Festival this week.

Diepe Grond rocked the establishment in the 1980s with its tale of a brother and sister isolated on a farm and caught in an intense, incestuous relationship – the product of a cruel, isolationist nationalism.

But the film version was shot in America and performed by South African-born Americans with not an Afrikaner in sight.

It starts badly – with clichéd African music – and goes downhill from there, occasionally saved by a bold and at times compelling performance by Chella Ferrow.

She and her co-star and screenplay writer Damon Shalit live “on an isolated farm in apartheid South Africa”, where “two lovers find themselves at risk of losing everything to a big city lawyer; they will stop at nothing to prevent him from exposing a dark family secret”.

To its credit, African Gothic rejuvenates a powerful if overblown script. But the film version is painfully simplified and commercialised; apartheid set in Disneyland. The farm isn’t in South Africa and its vegetation betrays it. Shalit loses his accent and the actress playing his mother in flashbacks isn’t Afrikaans at all. How are we to believe in her as a potent and twisted symbol of Afrikaner matriarchy if she isn’t even Afrikaans?

Unless, of course, the film isn’t meant for us at all, but has ambitions to crack the American DVD market. Diepe Grond is spun into a B-Grade thriller by director Gabriel Bologna in an attempt to win it a wider audience. Its arrogant, Americanised reversioning will not work for local audiences.


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