Shedding the past

2010-01-19 08:07

Sandra Laing now lives in a quiet

neighbourhood on the East Rand and as Skin’s credits roll it shows her finally

finding some success and opening her spaza shop. By the time I talk to her

though she’s had to close it as a nearby shopping centre has put her out of

business. For a woman whose life has been the embodiment of setbacks, she’s

remarkably philosophical and there isn’t a trace of bitterness in her voice. But

she’s shy and timid, probably from a lifetime of being browbeaten for failing to

fit into the colour-coded boxes that defined apartheid South Africa.

Laing, who is

played in the film by British actor Sophie Okonedo, was born to Abraham and

Sannie Laing in Piet Retief in 1955. They were white, her grandparents were all

white and her elder brother was white too. She, however, was coloured and in

apartheid South Africa where the authorities strove to make everyone see

themselves in colour it sentenced her to endless strife.

Her parents move

to a rural area to open a farm shop to hide out with their coloured child, but

inevitably she has to go to school and after enduring cruelty at the hands of

her fellow scholars and the teachers, she is finally arrested and removed from

the classroom by two police officers. She is then ­reclassified as “coloured”.

Her conservative ­father, played in the film by New Zealander Sam Neill, is

outraged and begins a court battle to get his child made “white” again. The

family won the court battle, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for Laing. Finally

after enduring years of prejudice she finds love with Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), a

black farmer, and runs away with him. This leads to her father cutting her off

and her mother, played by South African-born actor Alice Krige, facing the

horror of losing a child.

But happiness

still eludes her as Skin expertly depicts the difference between being white and

black. After a childhood of white privilege but lacking acceptance; Laing finds

the acceptance she seeks in the township with Petrus, but she has to face

poverty and forced removals, and yet again her colour ­becomes a weapon with

which to hurt her.

This uniquely

South African story brought tears to American-born director Anthony ­Fabian’s

eyes and he decided that Laing’s ­story should be put on film. Ironically the

­interview that aroused his interest was conducted by the BBC’s Peter White, a

blind radio presenter. Laing says of that interview that because he couldn’t see

her, she had to ­explain to him what she looked like and the crux of her

life-long struggle.

Skin is Fabian’s

first full-length feature film and his closeness to the subject shows in his

empathetic and honest portrayal of Laing’s story. He says of the story in his

director’s note: “Historical and political events and the absurdities of

apartheid are all touched on by the film. Sandra Laing’s story is emblematic of

the country’s struggle for freedom and transformation. However, my focus remains

on the personal rather than the political: this is the story of one woman’s

search for love, identity and family – all lost and regained.”

For Laing,

however, Fabian’s interest in her story was cathartic and helped her work

through the pain she’d suffered and offered her the chance to tell her own


“I was happy to

find someone to tell the world about what happened to me in the apartheid

years,” she says.

“I am glad the

film is coming out and through the film I have healed a lot as I was always sad

but now I am much better.”


I ask her how it felt to see her story on film and herself played by an actor,

she simply said: “Everything that is in the film is the truth. Some younger

people don’t believe what apartheid was and what happened to me.”

She hopes that this film, apart from being part of her personal

journey, will remind those who never knew about the atrocities committed during

apartheid or those who have forgotten them to ensure they never happen again.

The film spans 30 years and begins as all South Africans arrive at

the polls to cast their votes, as she looks at the now colour-blind lines of

voters Laing recalls her life – from her idyllic childhood with her loving

parents to the realisation that there’s something wrong with her – and it covers

her from head to toe, it’s her skin colour.

Skin is a film with many heartbreaking moments and the cast, both

local and international, capture the essence of Laing’s experience in their

performances. Though Neill’s ­accent is far from perfect on occasion, he

accurately captures the spirit of Laing’s staunchly conservative, National

Party-supporting father who, though he loves his child, sees in her a

contradiction of all he believes every time he looks at her. It is his tragedy

that he can’t adjust his view of the world, unfortunately his internal conflict

has a woeful effect on his daughter.

Krige, who was born in Uppington and raised in Port Elizabeth

before heading off to make her fortune overseas, is pitch perfect as Laing’s

loving mother and Abraham’s obedient wife. She becomes a buffer between her

child and her husband until eventually she is shattered by their conflict and is

forced to make an impossible choice.

Okonedo, who also played Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in a TV film

last year, is a good choice for Laing. She has the task of playing Laing from

her teen years through her 20s and into her 30s, and she manages it admirably.

She also masters the accent and Laing’s self-effacing manner and timid nature.

Fabian meanwhile sets the scene accurately, capturing the distinctive hues of

South Africa’s landscapes and the constant feeling of repression that permeated

every aspect of apartheid South African life.

Each time a local story is told by international film-makers there

is an outcry, calling for South African stories to be told by local actors.

Often, however, it takes a foreigner’s eye to see potential and that’s certainly

true here. Fabian finds a way to tell Laing’s tale – one that could only have

happened in apartheid South Africa – and make it resonate with international

audiences. Skin spent most of 2009 touring film festivals and collecting awards

– it has 10 to date.

Though the narrative takes place against the backdrop of apartheid

South Africa and couldn’t have happened anywhere else, it is ­also a universal

story about finding our place in the world and understanding who we are and

holding fast to that.

  • Skin opens on Friday,

    January 22

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