Sunday, 26 April 2020

The Obscured Nostalgia of “Verraaiers”

Verraaiers is streaming on Showmax.

Watching Verraaiers, the 2013 drama about supposed traitors to the Boer army during the Anglo-Boer War, left me with the desire to read up on the history of the war, because the experience of watching the movie feels highly inadequate and unenlightening on the historical episodes its takes as its subject. The sense of distortion and omission first arises in the voice-over prologue, when the narrator brings up the British incarceration in concentration camps of Boer women and children, as well as “their black compatriots”. No further details regarding African people are given in the entire movie, nor any qualifications of this faulty language. Knowing that this is a drama about the Afrikaans people and their history, and given the relation of that history to “their black compatriots,” there’s already the feeling of history being papered over or snipped out, and it casts doubt on the authenticity of the details that follow, including those that may seem merely incidental.

The story about Boer soldiers who decide to leave the army to stay with and protect their wives and children on their farms, and their subsequent persecution for this decision, is obviously one that interested the filmmakers, that they found historically important, and that engaged their sense of injustice. But whatever moral or emotional drive pushed this movie through to its final execution unfortunately didn’t appear to me on the screen, either as an imaginative re-creation of the past, as edifying analysis of any political situation, or as engaging and rousing rhetoric. The movie comes across more like an enactment of an encyclopedia article than as drama.

Where it falls flat as drama is with a mechanical plot, with dubious scenes of dialogue that last only long enough to set up the next one, and with woefully thin and simplistic characterisation. There are no idiosyncrasies or surprises that distinguish and colour the characters, least of all the main one, the officer Jacobus van Aswegen. No shadow falls across his flawless figure: he is a devoted Christian, a brave soldier, an honest leader, a gentle husband, a caring father, a tender father-in-law, an extraordinarily liberal employer of black labourers; he never loses his temper; he never doubts his principles or decisions; and, remarkably for any soldier or farmer, he never hesitates for a moment to piece together the unimpeachable and syntactically complex sentences that he speaks through the course of the movie. What history can be told of such a non-real character? What has been covered or cut out here?

The outrage of the commando fighters at what they see as abandonment is invoked often, but the actual rage and fear and their sources are never really imparted. Why not show scenes of Boer War suffering, concentration camp atrocities, and British military scare tactics, rather than just hint at them with stilted dialogue? The performances here elide any sense of surprise, uncertainty, or spontaneity. We today know the major issues and ultimate outcome of the war, and the actors play the characters as though they know exactly what they are about to say and do next. No one pauses to question the next line they’re about to utter; no one backtracks on an action or a gesture they have begun.

Research and historical accuracy aren’t the crux of any historical drama, but in this movie I did find myself often distracted by wayward Scottish accents, buildings and settings that seemed too clean and modern for the wartime period, and the conspicuous (and deliberate) absence of any racial conflict or tension in South Africa’s colonial period. Above all, as in pretty much any Afrikaans-language historical movie I watch that is set more than 100 years ago, I was disappointed in the script’s language choices. Characters speak an everyday contemporary form of Afrikaans, the kind that I can hear in any shop in my hometown. Many lines, while not overtly anachronistic, left me wondering whether anyone at the time would ever have said anything of the sort. Maybe most viewers are not as interested as I am in the substance and the textures of life in past times, or are not as disappointed when filmmakers pass up opportunities to illustrate scenes from our history that we have no other memorable images of; I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts on the matter. The only moment that I could appreciate in this regard was near the end, as part of the sentencing and court martial proceedings, when an official reads from a Dutch Bible to the accused. The distinction and marginal strangeness of the language worked efficiently to sketch in a part of what life a century ago might have sounded like, but it only lasted a moment.

Modernism, as a form of artistic representation, has brought an approach of special value to historical storytelling: namely, the self-reflexive awareness and representations of the storytellers themselves. Consider the movies made by political filmmakers as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Nanni Moretti, and Jordan Peele. Each of these artists creates a distinctive political vision, whether of historical or contemporary times, that implicates themselves in the stories they’re telling. What I’d like to see when a filmmaker makes a movie about South Africa’s past is what the story means to them, what drove them to make the particular movie they did, what their own lives have to do with the story, and how the story they’re telling connects with us in the present day.

This brings up one more point on which I take exception, and this is probably the largest one, and the most important to me with historical dramas: How is the story of this movie connected to the present day, and to the times that came after it? What political points are the filmmakers bringing up, and what is their significance to our times? Just as crucially, what are the unintended messages, the unanticipated effects of the images and narrative that they’ve pieced together? The movie appears to be framed in a flashback, with one of the characters relating the story to his grandson, in 1953, more than 50 years later. No one who knows anything about South African history will need to be told of the major issues of that time, and how they resonate all too strongly today still. The only thing suggested to have come after the events during the War was an irrational prejudice against certain Afrikaans families for the supposed actions of their ancestors during the War, but nothing of import to the governance, the hardships, the disputes, or the major figures of our country. As it is, the movie is painted over with the tranquil glaze of restorative nostalgia, which envisages a return to what the movie frames as the serene days of the 1950s, when Church Square was still green, and further back, to 1899, when Boers could wander across the rolling hills of the Transvaal bushveld without any oversight or interference from big bothersome governments run by the people of some other nation. This final thought suggests certain conservative political fantasies that I won’t indulge or accept unquestioningly from any more dramas made in this country.

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