CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 14 . . . . March 17, 2006
Years ago, there was a television show that would come on after the regular programming was done. Rather than show dead air, the station would feature a tour of Toronto from the front seat of a car. The camera would follow the car to the sounds of some cool jazz.
Story of A Beautiful Country is not unlike that programme. Director and writer Khalo Matabane travels through South Africa in a taxi van interviewing a number of diverse people about how they see the post apartheid South Africa. Cool jazz plays throughout the journey, and at times nothing is said verbally.
Matabane takes his time with the passengers and allows them the freedom to talk at length or simply sit as the taxi drives through the countryside and the cities. There is constant movement in the film. With the range of often conflicting views, South Africa is clearly on the move, but where?
Matabane says that when he was young, he was told, "The best way to understand the world is by going on a journey." So this is a journey of discovery. The passengers on the taxi are passionate about their country. By piecing together the various interviews and with the constantly changing landscape outside the cab windows, the film shows the diversity and problems that exist.
Before the first interview, the cab drives by houses and people: a woman walking along the road, an older man dressed up also walking, a young man wearing headphones, small houses, shacks, crumbled down buildings, a house with a magnificent gate and fence. Over the radio, a talk show host is taking calls about someone (in a position of authority one assumes) who referred to the "black bastard." The callers, Black and White, express their anger over the inappropriate comment. The context of the original comment is never explained, but the reaction shows a commonality in the listeners.
The first rider in the cab thinks it would be nice to forget about the apartheid years and simply move on, but admits in order to do that, he "must kill who I am." While it has been 10 years since the end of apartheid, he makes it clear that there is much to be done still. He can remember himself as a 10-year-old boy playing soccer, but he also remembers how the troops would ride through his community. The country must accept the bad part of its past as well as the good. One's history cannot "be wished away."
Two young Afrikaner women ride next. They are overcome by the beauty of their country, and one admits that most of their peers rarely venture outside of their own communities and, as a result, know little to nothing about the whole of South Africa. One comments that some are afraid of losing their language and culture, but she suggests that they "loosen up."
Between interviews, the taxi drives by scenes that are simply shown with no comment, such as an auction in the white farming area. This sets the stage for the next rider - a Boer farmer who is passionate about South Africa. However, his passion is mixed with anger. He claims that they are the only people in the history of the world who, having won the war, actually give the country back to those they have beaten. He feels that under the rule of the ANC, South Africa is like a prize that is being abused, and it may require his kind to take it back. As proof of his sincerity, he takes out an M16 assault rifle and demonstrates his ability to use it. He would prefer not to, but, if need be, he would.
Next, a woman with a tattoo of Africa on her shoulder says that she sees herself as an African more than a South African. She accepts the fact that, for the white South Africans, their world has been shattered with the end of apartheid. This is true for those who opposed the policy as well. While sympathetic, she states that the Blacks cannot simply forgive and forget as "the history is too vast."
A Black man playing a Bach piece on the cello is the next rider. He says nothing as the city goes by outside the cab.
Perhaps the most powerful interview of the film is what initially seems to be a mixed race couple. They are demonstratively affectionate with each other and talk about the way their relationship is seen by others. They half agree that things are better now, but, as they talk, much is revealed. The young woman is mixed race and has lived in many countries, but she considers herself South African. The man is Black but has been raised by a White family. While he laughs during much of what he says, he recalls a time when he was very young. While shopping with his mother, another White woman commented that his mother could never love a Black child. The camera is turned off at this point as he is overcome with sadness and anger. While the two are in love, they will have a difficult time.
The next rider is an older woman who says nothing. She sits and holds a photograph of a young Black man. When she gets out of the cab, it is to go to a grave where she visits her son and assures him that "your killers are still in jail."
Another interview takes place by the ocean. Here, a young woman likes the term "coloured." She sees it as a testament to the variety of cultures and races that have come together to form her. She sees herself as "a mixing pot of all the stories."
The final rider is a Black woman in Cape Town. She admits that, as a member of the middle class, she is able have a sense of equality even though Cape Town is predominantly white. She also admits that for those not of her financial position, such a feeling would be out of their reach.
At the end of the film, each of the passengers is identified.
Story of a Beautiful Country does an excellent job of showing some of the many pieces that are South Africa. The speakers are articulate and passionate, and the moving car motif is interesting. However, this film would not work well in a high school class. There are many long scenes where very little seems to happen. Odd, seemingly disjointed scenes are interspersed between the interviews. At times, it feels like a long car ride. If it were to be used in school, it would find a place in a Film or Media Studies class or World History, but it would take a sophisticated class to sit through it.
Recommended with reservations.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.