Saturday, 12 August 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Krotoa”

The new biopic on the Khoi historical figure Krotoa opened last week. Roberta Durrant’s film brought in mixed reviews, which is probably to be expected for any film dealing with a biter topic in South Africa’s colonial history. Before being released theatrically, it was shown at a number of international film festivals. It won Best Film at the Harlem International Film Festival in New York, and was in the official selection for the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival, the International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture, and the World Film Awards. I’ve compiled here a number of reviews of the film for readers to get a good idea of the range of reactions to Durrant’s biopic — let me know of any that I’ve missed.

To read this blog’s review of Krotoa, click here.

Writing for Channel24, Leandra Englebrecht, who awarded the film four stars out of five, declares it “deserving of all its awards”:

“Krotoa is not an easy watch but it is a necessary watch — it explores colonialism, race, sexual violence, and identity. … The strength of this film is largely due to the brilliant Crystal-Donna Roberts as Krotoa. She gives a nuanced performance of a woman who is caught between two cultures and her own ambitions. Great care went into the Khoi representation; the cast who played the roles learned the Khoi language for authenticity. … 
Krotoa is a thought-provoking film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. This film is a must-see for all South Africans.”

In his Silwerskerm column in the Rapport, Leon van Nierop also awarded the film four stars out of five, and considers it an achievement for the director to tell a story of colonial exploitation “without rage, without sermonising, and without choosing a side,” but fails to explain the merits in such an approach. He continues in his praise: Durrant does so

“with ingenuity and a dazzling insight into cultural diversity and divisions between peoples as well as the depiction of a search for identity. … She tells the story in such a sober manner that, no matter how the viewer feels about Van Riebeeck and his legacy, you stay objective and watch this brave, visionary Khoi woman with astonishment and humility. …
A large part of the honour goes to Armand Aucamp, who portrays Van Riebeeck with sympathy and balance. He lays bare his faults. Aucamp gives a characterisation that establishes him as one of our most authoritative actors, the leader in a new style of acting. But Roberts is due the greatest praise. Her Krotoa is one of the great heroines of not only the South African, but also the African film scene. … 
Readers who are afraid that this is a politically correct sermon that will further aggravate people’s guilty feelings may rest assured: It depicts a situation in a meaningful and unbiased way. The cinematography deserves mention. The grey Cape winters, the desolate forests around Table Mountain and the grim darkness of the fort are captured brilliantly in Greg Heimann’s atmospheric cinematography. His images have visual subtext — they are not self-serving pictures, but cinematography that highlights every nuance and the tragedy of the situation. This also goes for the lighting. Rarely has a film from Africa had such captivating depth.
Support this ode at a time in which a director looks at the clash between cultures and the crumbling of identity and human dignity. Durrant tells this story with impeccable direction and gives a fresh, new view of an untold story which is now getting the chance to be heard for the first time. You definitely have to see it.”

If, like me, you want to tell van Nierop just where he can put his sober objectivity, his sympathetic balance, his unbiased meanings, and his impeccable ode, you may do well to read Theresa Smith’s two-and-a-half-star review for the website Weekend Special, in which she praises Roberts’s performance, which she calls quietly intense and committed … but the script she is given to work with does not give her much of a chance for nuance.” Smith criticises the way the rest of the story unfolds and how the Dutch and Khoi characters are disparately presented. She writes,

“The big question is really who is this film’s audience? The words which run over the last scene are the clue. The audience is reminded that Krotoa is the ancestress of many a famous white South African. So what if her three children were the first Coloureds born at the Cape? That’s apparently beside the point. This is about salving some liberal conscience to be able to sigh over the noble savage and her attempts to find a middle way in a clash of cultures. But make no mistake; the culture Krotoa was born into is not portrayed as anything other than other. 
The film does very inadvertently show how white South African culture takes what it wants from Coloured culture and refuses to acknowledge that we have the right to self-determination as a people in our own right, and not as a mistake of miscegenation that happened despite the rules.”

On her blog, Gabi Zietsman awarded Krotoa seven stars out of ten, in a review that specifies her “biggest issue” with the film as “with the portrayal of Van Riebeeck,” though she does “not fault Aucamp, who still gave a great performance”.


“I was very impressed with the set design and costumes, which carefully displayed the beauty of traditional wear and made the film feel historically authentic in that regard. The Dutch men’s comically long hair took a while to get used to, but luckily the quality of acting from Aucamp and Bessenger made you look past it. The set design transported the audience far back to a wilder South Africa … Roberts was a great choice and made the film worthy of all its international awards.”

On the Afrikaans website Bioskoop, Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren writes that

“In [the context of the movie], Krotoa is a character with whom I could very much identify, as a woman. I am cautious to use the label ‘feminist film,’ because this could put off potential viewers, but there is definitely a moment when she grabs her fate with both hand and takes control of her life. This leads to romance between her and the surgeon Pieter van Meerhof (portrayed with compassion by Jacques Bessenger) and a good trade agreement between the local population and the settlers. …
Roelof de Man’s one-sided depiction was one of the aspects of the story that bothered me the most. From life experience, we know that most figures have reasons (however unfair) for their actions. But de Man is depicted as a ‘bad character’ whom one despises, without offering sufficient motivation for where his hatred for the indigenous population comes from. The blame for this cannot be laid at Deon Lotz’s door, as an actor relies on the text given to him. …
There is something about the clarity of the image, the delicacy of the sound design, and the way in which shots were planned that is just on a totally new level. The production designer, cinematographer, and director worked closely together to create picturesque scenes. And my use of the word ‘picturesque’ [literally ‘painting-like’ in Afrikaans] is deliberate …
Krotoa is not the first historical film that provokes controversy, and also definitely won’t be the last. … The writer and researcher, Kaye Ann Williams, spent months researching the historical data and fine combing Jan van Riebeeck’s diary with a magnifying glass, but, ultimately, each of us has our own background, ideology, and social context that influence us. Therefore, the onus rests on you as the viewer and consumer of Afrikaans films to watch it and form your own judgement.”

Let me know of any other review of the film you come across.

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