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John Boorman hasn’t directed a film set in his native England since 1987—and that was Hope and Glory, a memoir of his childhood during the adult horrors and boyish pleasures of World War II. Indeed, his last three features compose a sort of world tour: The Tailor of Panama, Beyond Rangoon, and The General, which is set in Ireland, the 72-year-old filmmaker’s home for much of his adult life.
Although he hasn’t consciously avoided stories set in Britain, Boorman suggests that “if you look at the history of films, you see that when there are dynamic, vibrant films coming out of a particular country, there’s usually something dynamic going on in that country. And I think the problem with England is that the stories aren’t there, because it’s not a particularly dynamic society at the moment. Of course, you could deny that by referring to, say, Vera Drake. Which is a wonderful film.
“But of course, it was set in the ’50s, a dreary, dreary time. Only Mike Leigh is gloomy enough to have chosen to make a film set in England in the ’50s,” he adds, chuckling.
Now comes In My Country, a mixture of fiction and docudrama that follows South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission through that scarred nation, collecting testimonies from victims and pleas for forgiveness from victimizers. Boorman says he understands the commission’s work from having visited apartheid-era South Africa, as well as from the time he spent in the Amazon, where he made 1985’s The Emerald Forest.
The director first went to South Africa when the U.K. arts community was deeply committed to sanctions against the country. “A lot of British playwrights, including Harold Pinter, refused to have their plays staged in South Africa,” recalls Boorman. “I argued against this. I said that art is fundamentally subversive, and whilst I’m in favor against all the other sanctions against apartheid, I think that it’s ridiculous not to have them see plays and films that can actually change things. There was a bit of a controversy about this, and the British Council asked me to go to South Africa and have a look at it.
“I went all over—townships, universities—and I met a lot of people, black and white, who were struggling against apartheid with enormous courage. Because they were risking their lives—or certainly incarceration. People were just seized and would disappear for years. People were held without trial. And tortured.
“Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
Boorman believes that “it was the sanctioning of torture that actually caused the white minority government to collapse. More than anything else, it was the inner corruption of that course.”
Central to In My Country is the character of Langston Whitfield, a fictional Washington Post reporter played by Samuel L. Jackson. When he arrives overseas, Whitfield sees things in black and white, and challenges the right of Afrikaner poet Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) to consider herself African. She, however, better understands the principal underlying the commission’s work: ubuntu, which seeks absolution rather than retribution.
“It underpins the whole of the idea of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It comes out of tribal Africa, really,” Boorman explains. “The notions of crime and punishment differ in tribal situations. I lived with a tribe in the Amazon. If you don’t have a prison, you can’t lock people up. You have to do something else about it. They’re small communities—Amazon tribes are, generally speaking, between 100 and 200 people—and so everything is known about everybody. If there’s a misdemeanor, then it has be somehow dealt with. This idea of just talking it out and trying to understand it, and then the notion of compassion and forgiveness, is a practical way of dealing with it.
“When I was in the Amazon,” he adds, “one day this woman was screaming, and I went outside, and her husband had a cudgel and he was beating her. I looked closely, and he wasn’t actually touching her. It was a kind of ritual beating. He wasn’t actually hitting her, but she was screaming as though he was. She’d been unfaithful to him, and this was a kind of public demonstration of his anger and her punishment. I’ve seen examples of that in other tribal situations. That’s how ubuntu comes about.”
In the film, Whitfield and the married Malan have an affair. Although Whitfield is imaginary, Malan is based on noted poet Antjie Krog, and the affair is basically real. The writer, who’s known for her sexual candor, recounted it in Country of My Skull, the memoir that inspired the movie. In fact, Country of My Skull was once considered In My Country’s likely title, but people found it “rather off-putting,” Boorman reports. Some people at Sony Pictures Classics, the movie’s American distributor, “said it sounded like a horror film.”
Boorman notes that scripter Ann Peacock, a South African of English descent who now lives in the United States, used the interracial affair as an attempt to connect the story “to non–South African audiences’ expectations. Juliette Binoche plays, effectively, Antjie Krog. In her book, she tells of a love affair she had with someone covering the hearings. It came about out of need for a kind of solace while following these endless stories of torture and rape and silence. So we thought that bringing a black American journalist with certain attitudes about black and white into this gave it a wider context.”
Initially, Boorman remembers, Krog was reluctant to be involved in the project. “I talked to her, and she said, ‘Look, I don’t know anything about film. Just do what you think.’ But as we went on, I managed to draw her out of this reticence. And then Juliette completely consumed her. Juliette went into her life and into her wardrobe. She was like a kind of werewolf. And they became very close. Antjie took her on a trip all through the Orange Free State; they traveled together for about a week, which was very important for Juliette’s preparation.”
There is one other major character in the film—or at least a minor character who plays a major recurring role: Col. De Jager, the South African police’s most ruthless torturer, who’s played by The General star Brendan Gleeson. Snippets of Whitfield’s interview with De Jager are threaded throughout the film, Boorman says, “because it was very powerful stuff, so as one lump it would have been too overwhelming. And I wanted his voice to come in from time to time to give a sense of the perpetrator.”
Like most of Boorman’s recent films, In My Country is an independent production, with financing from many sources. “It’s very cumbersome and complicated, and you have to get involved with a lot of greedy lawyers and accountants,” the filmmaker says. “On the other hand, you have freedom. So both systems have their advantages and disadvantages.”
If Hollywood was easier to negotiate when Boorman made Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific for major studios in the late ’60s, he says it’s mostly because movie executives were at a loss. “With the advent of television, the studios didn’t know what to make,” he argues. “They didn’t know who the audience was. So they left it to the directors. The directors came in with an idea, with a script, and they went with that. It seems extraordinary today. With Deliverance, I wrote the script, I gave it to John Calley, who was running it, and he read it and said, ‘Fine, provided the budget is such-and-such.’ There were no notes. I went off and made the film.
“The big watershed was Star Wars, you know,” he continues. “Up until that point, the director was king in Hollywood. So when Star Wars came out and was a huge success, the studios then realized that the audience was really 14-year-old boys. They started to do research about audiences, and gradually that sort of blockbuster, high-budget mainstream picture has take over. There used to be a middle ground, which has disappeared. There’s a huge gap down to the ghetto where the independent pictures live.”
The Tailor of Panama was produced by Columbia, also a subsidiary of Japan’s Sony, and Boorman remains in awe of the volume of “notes”—suggestions and requirements from on high—that arrived. “The amount of paperwork you have to do is horrifying. And of course, with modern communications, the paper can be spewed out instantly wherever you are in the world. This flood of paper overwhelmed us.”
It’s enough to make a filmmaker head for Burma or Brazil—or anyplace else far from the Hollywood– Tokyo axis. “The combination of the Japanese system and the Hollywood system,” he says, “is kind of lethal.” —Mark Jenkins