Sibling love and the secret language of plants

SAGE values: A moment of realisation for Racheltjie de Beer (Zonika de Vries). Photograph courtesy Imdb.

VERY RARELY, YOU might be lucky enough to have a film cross your radar that presents you with an understanding of the intrinsic value of telling stories so much that you feel the need to speak of it in whispers. It’s like a sacred entity has been brought to life. This is the kind of values you can expect in Matthys Boshoff’s 2019 film Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer, which is currently on Showmax.

If you were educated at primary school in South Africa until about the 1990s, you were bound to have come across the story of Rachel de Beer. Snipped tight into a precis of historical detail for the very young, it was a tale of courage and sibling love raw in the levels of sacrifice it presented. It also remained an unfleshed-out yarn that stayed a one-liner in the sensibilities of many.

Featuring a rich and intelligent mix of fact and narrative, this film is simple with an ending that has slipped into common awareness. Rachel (Zonika de Vries), a child, in her early adolescence, saves the life of her small brother Jamie (Johannes Jordaan), when they are caught in a snowstorm. And in doing so, she martyrs herself. It’s a tale with little context. In this film, however, it is told with such a biblical sense of overriding detail, it rises to the notion of ‘classic’ status, immediately. With strong dialogue and a sophisticated and balanced grasp of the hardship of strangers to African shores, the work is crafted with potent, oft bald, lines and a developed sense of empathy.

And then, there’s the plants. Proteas and lilies, snakes head and sage, herbs and blossoms and more: Flowers that contain old wives’ tales and promises of moral value. This texture of beliefs and rhymes infiltrates into the story through a patchwork blanket which is present in many of the film stills. But it is also allowed a channel in the work’s plot that saves little Jamie’s life and flows like an undercurrent through the work’s depths.

The orchestral potency of the incoming storm, the sexist values of the children’s father, Herman (Stian Bam), the manner in which the girl child becomes the bearer of everything in the absence of her mother, are details woven in among a tale of love and dementia, of other levels of sacrifice and of a religious respect for the weather. These issues are not laboured, but offer a gloss on the original story that makes it as much about the role of women and black people in 19th century South African society as it treads on the original historical theme.

Headlined by teen performer De Vries, who yields a nuanced and deep Racheltjie, a child who understands complicated responsibilities in a relentlessly harsh context, the film also features small, but iridescent performances by Sandra Prinsloo as the elderly woman unravelling mentally in the house, Marius Weyers as her kind and long-suffering husband, and Antoinette Louw, the adult daughter with a yen to educate and love, in the middle of nowhere. As a whole, the work blends narrative know-how with filmic brilliance, old botanical tropes with editing wisdom and music and cinematography to make you weep for the beauty of the South African interior landscape in the shadows of the Drakensburg. In short, it is simply flawless. You may know the story and have encountered it many times in different contexts, but the clincher which portrays the death of the eponymous character, will have you sobbing at the end.

This is more than just a flick: Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer is an essay in Afrikaans pride that doesn’t fly in the face of post-apartheid values. It is about the toughness of one people in its confrontation with a hostile land. Don’t miss it.

Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer is directed by Matthys Boshoff and features a cast headed by Stian Bam, Charlie Bouguenon, Zonika de Vries, Johannes Jordaan, Antoinette Louw, Beáte Opperman, Sandra Prinsloo, Seputla Sebogodi and Marius Weyers. Written by Matthys Boshoff and Brett Michael Innes, it is produced by Johan Kruger, and features creative input by Chris Letcher (music), Willie Nel (cinematography), Warwick Allan (editing), Thorsten Wedekind (casting), Chantel Carter (production design) and Sulet Meintjes (costumes). It is available on ShowMax.

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