IT TAKES A very special level of respect for a story to be able to tell it with the dignity and complexity it warrants and not teeter off into preachiness or sensationalism. Ellen Pakkies is a real woman who was raised in the Cape Flats context of unrelenting abuse and poverty, and who weathered it for over 40 years. She rose to media prominence in 2007 when she killed her tik (crystal meth) addict son and submitted herself to the authorities. This Afrikaans-language film, Ellen is her story.
But it’s not only her story. Directed with a flawless understanding of narrative, and supported by a creative team that let you into the intimacies of the actual context of Pakkies’s house and community, Ellen is a haunting, raw and unforgettable film. It opens a sliver of light on the horror of poverty and the unfairness of living in a system where you’re constantly being broken and there’s no helping hand anywhere. It’s about every proverbial “Ellen Pakkies” who is confronted with someone so demonised by addiction that something else in their soul has shifted.
This is a completely riveting film, with breathtakingly fine performances by Jill Levenberg and Elton Landrew as Ellen and her husband Odneal, and Jarrid Geduld in the complex role of Abie, the tragic son. It has all the credentials of a block buster, but is conveyed without gimmicks, self-indulgence or maudlin in a pared down work that offers you the story in the most direct sense possible. There’re no tricks here, no outward clevernesses: it’s just Ellen Pakkies and her terrifying tale of disassociation and what street drugs can do to a child. And to his mother.
And in being so stripped of glamour or contrivance, with cinematographic details ramped up to the point where you can smell the contexts reflected, the film opens up chasms of values and morals in a way that will upset your equilibrium and understanding of how you think things should work in the world. The strength of this film does not allow it to become preachy or self-righteous, but God’s there, in the details, as is the Devil himself. From the legal conundrum to the psychological fabric of this narrative, it’s an immensely important film that drives awareness of an issue, which is close to the bone for many, but never digresses from the material at hand.
Ellen, like the play Ulwembu, recently staged at the Hillbrow Theatre, reaches into the fears that every mother nurses somewhere at the back of her heart. What if my child gets into the wrong company? What if the world breaks my baby? But it’s more than that. It offers a gut-wrenching reflection on child abuse and rape, that is handled with such succinctness and wisdom in a segment of a few seconds that will haunt you forever. This heart-breaking and exceptional work is unequivocally the film of the year, so far.
- Ellen: Die Ellen Pakkies Storie is directed by Daryne Joshua and features a cast headed by Clint Brink, Jarrid Geduld, Ilse Klink, Elton Landrew, Jill Levenberg, Russel Savadier, Kay Smith and Grant Swanby. It is written by Amy Jephta. Produced by Schalk-Willem Burger and Paulo Areal, it features creative input by Zenn van Zyl (cinematography), Quinn Lubbe (music), Dihantus Engelbrecht (costumes) and CA van Aswegen (editing). Release date in South Africa through Ster Kinekor: September 7 2018.