Thursday, 29 October 2015

Opening the Box

“Dis Ek, Anna”


Izel Bezuidenhout (as Anna), Nicola Hanekom, and Morne Visser in Sara Blecher's "Dis Ek, Anna"

Dis Ek, Anna opened throughout South Africa on Friday 23 October 2015, with one of the most anticipated releases ever for a South African film, mostly due to the popularity of the two books from which it’s adapted – Anchien Troskie’s Dis Ek, Anna (“It’s Me, Anna”) and Die Staat Teen Anna Bruwer (“The State vs Anna Bruwer”). The essential subject of the film is known to most people, whether or not they’ve read the book: Anna, as a 12-year-old girl, is repeatedly raped by her paedophile stepfather. The event that triggers the telling of her story is nearly as well known: Anna, as a 30-year-old woman, arrives at her stepfather’s house one evening, and when he answers the door she shoots and kills him. These are the two crucial facts of the film. Based on the anticipation among South African audiences for its release, stoked by the film’s screenings at the Durban International Film Festival in July and the Silwerskermfees in August (where it won Best Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Actor for Morné Visser) and the film’s overwhelmingly positive receptions there, most people have decided that its precisely what they’d like to go see.

Dis Ek, Anna is directed by Sara Blecher, who also directed Ayanda, which opened three weeks ago, and Otelo Burning, released in 2011. With Dis Ek, Anna she takes a clear stance of condemning child rape, but shows no perspective or even interest in the characters of her story. In any of the scenes where the stepfather, Danie (played by Morné Visser), molests or rapes Anna (Izel Bezuidenhout), Blecher’s camera tactfully moves into a position where nothing distasteful is shown, while still efficiently conveying all the necessary information. An obvious reason for this is that it would be illegal to show much more of Bezuidenhout – who is still a child – but Blecher has personal reasons as well. We can’t stand to see an adult man raping a young girl, and Blecher can hardly stomach the thought. She leads up to each instance of molestation bearing the notion that if we actually saw it, we would be repulsed, and probably even psychologically damaged in some way. Her images successfully convey, mostly pre-emptively, the horror she feels when she contemplates Danie’s actions. The outcry that broke out when Dis Ek, Anna was given the age restriction of 18 (SVLN) by the Film and Publication Board – for apparently containing images that may be considered pornographic – was just; there is no visible nudity in the film, and nothing in here is erotic or rousing. It’s the furthest from pornography any sex could be.

Blecher is also clearly condemnatory of the perpetrators of child rape. Danie is shown to be what more than one character calls “a pillar of the community”: he is an elder at church, he is a successful businessman, he provides abundantly for his family, and is friendly with all who know him. Blecher quickly shows his charm to be illusory, and his decency to be a con. She skilfully guides Visser in a performance that reveals his monstrosity is genuine while his friendliness and uprightness are a deliberate deception, no matter how convincing it is to the other characters. She warns that no amount or degree of good behaviour in a person can guarantee his or her essential goodness. She also lets us know, through Tertius Kapp’s script, that she harbours no hopes for the redemption or rehabilitation of paedophiles. The scene in which this is discussed – involving the examination in court of a state psychiatrist by Anna’s defence attorney (Drikus Volschenk) – appears a little too early in the film, I feel, for its implications to be fully realised.

I’m all for a movie that explicitly involves child rape. The line of reasoning taken up by Blecher and Kapp, following Troskie, in Dis Ek, Anna is that child rape is far more widespread in South Africa than many of us realise, and this in part is due to – and perpetuated by – the silence on the part of a great number of victims, and of the many people in the victim’s life who know of or at least suspect these evil acts. The publication of Troskie’s book helped many people to openly acknowledge that they had been raped as children, and helped many more people to openly discuss the issue, and Blecher’s film promises to do the same. Not enough people are talking about it, and a countrywide theatrical phenomenon is as good a remedy as any that can be come up with by a South African artist. In this regard, I commend Blecher and her crew. This movie’s subject matter is so significant, and its filmmakers so obviously keen and committed, that its lack of vision and failures of imagination are immense disappointments.

Blecher and Kapp neglect to depict or evoke very much of any character’s inner life, and stick to literal and unsurprising delineations. Anna, Danie, Anna’s mother Johanna (Nicola Hanekom), the police investigator (Marius Weyers), and the defence attorney are all devised characters serving important functions in the narrative, but not people living real lives and undergoing real experiences other than those important to the plot. The story of Anna’s childhood - her parents’ divorce, her father’s suicide, her new family with a stepfather and stepbrother, her repeated rape, and eventually being kicked out of the house when she falls pregnant at 16 - is told entirely in flashback, filled in linearly through testimonies given in court by various characters. There is not much interest in Anna’s emotions and psychology other than how it shapes her actions on the night of the murder, and how it determines the degree to which she can be implicated. We learn very little of who she was, or was growing to be, before Danie ruined her childhood, and so we can’t quite see the magnitude of what has been lost when, as a result of being repeatedly raped, her life veers from its normal and hopeful path to one of self-contempt and disgust with the world.

The court has no reason to discuss the psychology and life of the deceased, and so we never find out much about Danie either apart from his sexual predation and his secretive double life. We learn nothing about who he is, how he may have become such a monster (does Blecher believe paedophiles were all born that way?), what problems he encountered in his previous marriage, what the workings are of the marriage between him and Johanna are (there is a single scene where she is upset by him flirting with a much younger woman; he resolves it by rashly proposing), or how he feels at any time about what he does to Anna? Does he ever realise the harm he’s caused? Does he really believe that, as he keeps telling her, she’s responsible for their sexual relationship because of the way she looks and smiles? Does he ever feel remorse, if not for child rape, then at least for what is considered in his conservative community as gross immorality - extramarital sex? Blecher and Kapp never fill in these gaps, and we miss the darker implications of Troskie’s story.

Kapp includes testimony in court by a dominee (a church minister) (Dawid Minnaar), and a flashback to a conversation between the dominee and Anna when she was 16 and desperate to find someone to tell about her suffering. The dominee happens to be good friends with Danie and, though he doesn’t quite accuse Anna of lying, he lays no blame on Danie and all of it on her. He says she dresses far too provocatively, he says she should respect the authority of her stepfather, and he tells her to give up her folly and forgive him of whatever it is she’s angry at him for. Blecher and Kapp draw a quick sketch of how the repressions of conservatism - which pervades South African culture in general and Afrikaans culture in particular - are harmful in a society where rape is not addressed anywhere near enough, but they fail to fully indict people like the dominee and their habits of repression. They don’t show how repression not only exacerbates terrible situations, but can even cause them by misdirecting impulses and urges in an effort to subdue them. For all the unflinching gazing into the darkness, for which so many pundits in the South African press are eager to salute the film, it refuses to gaze head on, or to take a sufficiently broad field of vision.

And Blecher’s lack of directorial style eventually blends with this deficient vision. Her camera is taken through a roster of angles and distances and movements, none of them more evocative nor expressive than any other (except in her fervent and, I think in her favour, somewhat unconscious condemnatory rape scenes) and she doesn’t elicit from any of the actors some representation of a real human life. We can see this in the fact that she has among her cast perhaps the two most sturdy and reliable performers in South African film - Weyers and Elize Cawood (playing the prosecutor) - and rather than drawing any aesthetic surprises from their talents, or even inspiration from their presence, she leaves them to their own devices, and though she gets completely workable and professional material from each of them, it’s hardly an achievement for the film. We’ve seen work like this from them any number of times before.

There is a parallel subplot set in a Free State township, in which a two-year-old girl has been raped and murdered by someone who purportedly believes in the superstition that sex with a virgin can cure one of AIDS. Everyone in the township knows who did it, and it isn’t difficult for Weyers’s detective to track him down, but the probability of prosecution seems slim, and the detective is doubtful that a prison sentence of any length could help the man or the community at all. He’s confronted by angry residents of the township, and the child’s grieving parents, and we see a little-shown portion of one of the many wretched communities in South Africa which seem to have been forgotten by the rest of us. Blecher doesn’t shy away from calling out injustices, neither in the township nor in Anna’s comfortable middle class childhood and adolescence, but she fails to capture the distinctive flavours of the country, the times, the society, and the characters’ personal lives. Even in the earlier, happier times in Anna’s life, there’s little suggestion of her intimate joys and pleasures, and we gain little notion of the du Toit family silently ignoring (and each somehow dealing with) disgust and emotional hardships, nor of Anna as an individual whose very identity is the subject of fear and subordination and abhorrence. Seeing the possibility for beauty in a troubled situation and a distressed individual is more than a matter of personal artistry; it’s the difference between a work that respects the complexities and fullness of experience and a simplified reduction of it.

(SPOILER ALERT) Perhaps the very worst thing about Dis Ek, Anna is the ending, where Anna, the night before the judge announces his verdict, rests on the couch with her defence attorney, with whom she has developed something of a tender relationship. She, quite understandably, feels that she has no life left, and that whatever may have been intact after she was kicked out by her stepfather is certainly broken now that she’s committed murder. The attorney consoles her by telling her the tale of Philomela - a figure in Greek mythology who was kidnapped, mutilated, and raped by an assailant, but escaped by turning into a nightingale. When one hears the nightingale’s song, he tells her, one draws comfort knowing that Philomela is now free from oppression. This should not console Anna (which it does) and I doubt anyone else can derive any real consolation from it. Real people cannot break free so cleanly from such darknesses, and even now that Danie is gone, Anna cannot evade the demons that linger after the smoke of acts of rape and murder clears. Blecher, in some misguided effort to end in hopeful and solid tones, provides a false comfort for Anna and other rape victims, and neglects to exercise real cinematic imagination to show that they do not “begin a new life,” as we might like to think they can. As important as it is that these stories are told, and voices like Anna’s are heard, it would take someone far more visionary, and someone of far more formidable artistic skills than Blecher to render anything satisfactory from so bleak a story.

Dis Ek, Anna is available on DVD.

Dis Ek, Anna is directed by Sara Blecher; written by Tertius Kapp, based on the novel by Anchine Troskie; music by Schalk Joubert; director of photography, Jonathan Kovel; edited by Nicholas Costaras. Running time: 125 minutes. 2015.



Charlene Brouwer as the adult Anna, during her murder trial

10 comments:

  1. Well said, Jared. But you need to remember one important fact: this is a movie not a complete series. So the only way for the director and his crew to nail this was to focus. That's how Hollywood does it, that's how you create a masterpiece. Rape and murder is what this film is all about. The rest are nothing but add-ons. Creating a movie is not about explaining each character and situation to detail but to suck you in. Which is why there were so many facial close-ups - from the beginning until the end. What you actually need to suggest is a complete series because when it comes to movies: LESS IS MORE...

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    1. First, it should be noted that the way Hollywood does it is not synonymous with the way to create a masterpiece. Next, rape and murder are indeed the subject matter of the film, but deeper insights into character and story are not add-ons, but essential elements in a work of art. I think you've misunderstood how I meant better explanations should be given, and how to draw sharpness and perceptions of the characters. We don't need extra dialogue for that - indeed, some of the present dialogue and scenes I found to be a bit redundant. The film doesn't have to be any longer than it is to include the things I'm looking for. What is needed is a more focused (and not less, as you seem to think I mean) approach from the filmmakers, eliciting new and idiosyncratic work from everyone involved, and then distilling that to create a work of a personal and powerful perspective. The film is obviously ardent in its desire to say something, but the best way for any film of any genre in any style with any subject matter to achieve this is to see something: to not only render, but create images that express fully what is inadequately expressed by text.

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    2. A detail I missed when reading your comment before was the mention of closeups. It's true that the director resorts to those in the movie, and it's a classic way of conveying the kinds of emotional insights one years for in cinema, but the director doesn't draw this from the closeups she shows; all that's there is the bland naturalism and prosaic facial expression that so often passes for true emotion in South African (and international) cinema and television.

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  2. I agree with you here, Jared. I really wanted to get an idea of Anna's and her step dad's mindsets and complex emotions. We were just given a series of events and nothing else.

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  3. I think the blogger is attention seeking as this is the best movie ever produced in South Africa. If he has written something positive his words will be lost between the thousands of good things being said. 2 books in 2 hours, highlight some serious issues in SA/world I think this movie is excellent and I hope it make a change to a lot of people's lives.

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    1. Could you substantiate why you find this the best movie ever produced in South Africa? I do not deny it highlights serious issues both in our country and the world - I say as much in my post - but I don't think the venerability of a cause necessarily makes the movie that takes up that cause just as venerable. Blecher and her cast and crew obviously have the very best of intentions, but they fail to match these intentions with artistry. As for your first allegation, I don't write positive or negative reviews to garner any attention; I don't even really aim to write specifically positive or negative reviews. I intend to convey my experience of watching the movie, and my thoughts on how the director has expressed her vision cinematically. To deliberately go against consensus is, to my mind, as inane as blindly following it. I am eager, though, to hear your thoughts on what you like about the movie.

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  4. Seems like you really enjoyed it so much that you would have prefered it to be 5 hours or longer or maybe even a 13 part series. Unfortunately 2 hours is what you get to convey the information in cinema. Also sounds like you wanted things explained as oppose to seeing it. If you could not see Anna's vulnerability and her fear for men (almost a hatred) and her journey of making peace and starting to trust again then you are oblivious and should rather not focus on such complex films because the last thing a brilliant film maker like Blecher will do is spoon feed the ignorant... (I have no affiliation with any of the above comentators)

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    1. I didn't particularly enjoy the film, and I rather hope that's not the impression you actually got from my post. I wouldn't have preferred it to be any longer than it is; what I feel was missing from the film was not details and impressions that would generally be filled in with extra scenes, but with better, more visionary images. I want the exact opposite of what you think I want: I want to see these things and not have them explained. I feel the film was weakened by the reliance on dry testimonies in court, with motives and traits underlined and neatly delineated, instead of illustrated in the performances and the photography. I could see Anna's vulnerability and her fear of men, but these are not treated with the full force of subjective experience by the director. I disagree, then, that the film was too complex for me; rather, I found it too simplistic. And Blecher seems quite intent on feeding us her unadulterated linear depictions of character and plot, while keeping real human insights out of the film.

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  5. Dear Jared. I think you may have missed many of the subtle images you so long for. I won't go through all of them but would like to mention one which I thought told a whole story in itself. The image of the lady smoking on the stoop in front of the shack while Daniels is being killed by the father of the raped child. In your fervour to be critical you may have missed the many other images that gave all the information you found so lacking in the film.

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    1. Hi Jenna, I did indeed see this shot of the lady smoking, which I didn't think was all that evocative, and certainly not of anything in Anna's story. I appreciate your concern about what I may be missing, but I don't think I have any real fervour for negative criticism. I've tried to give my truest reaction to the film, and I didn't find that it contained much of what I look for. The information I found lacking in the film was an evocation of the inner life of Anna and her family, and a sense of their experiences and ideas. I haven't seen the film since I first wrote about it, though, and I may well feel quite differently about it next time, particularly after reading your comment.

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