FOR SO MANY years, South African film has suffered from what easily can be considered a kind of collective lack of self-esteem. Our film makers yearned to be American in their stories, their accents, their tricks of the medium. But for the past several years, there’s a thread of storymaking, largely from Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, that offers a gloss on what it means to have this identity, with its embarrassing and complicated history. The narrative premises of the kind of stories dramatised by radio stations such as Radio Sonder Grense attests to this, as does Christiaan Olwagen’s film Kanarie and Martyn Le Roux’s Die Pelsloper. Die Stropers, an impeccable piece by Etienne Kallos, joins these ranks with a great sense of the oft sinister beauty of the landscape.
On a level, this farm story fits into the early twentieth century values of the ‘plaas roman’, a genre of South African story telling which may also be embraced by works such as Yael Farber’s Mies Julie. But there’s a plot that ropes in the Calvinist values that are about wholesomeness – from a social, spiritual, physical aspect – that is chilling.
It’s a tale cast in the shadow of farm killings in the district. One premised on championing the idea of pure blood. But it’s like the devil has tossed a spanner into all the good intentions of the farmer and his wife, that are so passionately centred on good bodies, good spirits and good seeds.
And it is in this context that we meet Janno (Brent Vermeulen), the robust, sullen teenage son of the farmer, who lives in his wholesome bedroom with a painting of a boy and his collie on the wall, and secrets in the closet. Enter Pieter (Alex van Dyk), a foundling with a dirty history, and the narrative gets distinctly more creepy, sexy and troubled.
The business of the foundling is of course how the characters justify their sense of community. This little scrap of humanity, with all his bruises and flaws, is white. He speaks Afrikaans. He’s understood as salvageable for this very reason. But Pieter’s not your ordinary malleable young farm child. He’s something else.
The plot is tight and compelling, with the landscape running relentlessly and almost rudely in its beauty and horror as a backdrop to everything. Featuring a viciously fine reflection on dementia in the performance of Danny Keogh as the elderly grandfather under the care of black women in the region, the work is guttural in its emotional fabric and will take you to where you may fear to go, alone. It’s a beautiful, haunting piece, fresh from celebratory seasons at Cannes and elsewhere.
- Die Stropers (The Harvesters) is an Afrikaans-language film with English sub-titles directed by Etienne Kallos and features a cast headed by Danny Keogh, Benré Labuschagne, Alex van Dyk, Juliana Venter, Brent Vermeulen, Morné Visser and Erica Wessels. Produced by Michael Auret, Thembisa Cochrane, Sophie Erbs and Etienne Kallos, it is written by Etienne Kallos and features creative input by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine (music), Michal Englert (cinematography), Muriel Breton (editing), Belinda Kurger, Trevor Marc Latimer and Monique Pelser (casting), Barry Parvess (production design) and Chantelle Burger (costumes). Release date in South Africa by Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: March 15, 2019.