A World Apart
directed Chris Menges
written by Shawn Slovo
starring Jodhi May, Barbara Hershey, Tim Roth, Nadine Chalmers, Phyllis Naidoo, Carolyn Clayton-Cragg, Albee Lesotho
So, this is Apartheid. Somewhere amidst all the hand wringing and blatant manipulation there is here one woman’s story of defiance and fortitude. Unfortunately, the story proves to hang on the idea that if you bash someone over the head long enough they will come around to your line of thinking. Still, it does seem to work during presidential debates but it doesn’t work here.
This is the kind of film where you are immediately told where to stand. When facing such an internationally condemned state of institutionalized racism it’s hard to imagine anyone siding with the South African government on this issue. When something is presented as such an obvious evil, it’s probably too much too ask for some fair and balanced investigation into the nature of the beast. But this is a specifically rendered type of cinema and it has no designs on creating anything but a clear cut evisceration of the condition under which the majority black population found themselves under this rule. The white traitors in this film, who have had their hearts warmed by ideas of communistic struggle, are presented strictly as heroes who fought against the tyranny because their consciences told them it was the right thing to do. So we are left with a pandering, sycophantic film that wants us White people to feel really, really bad about the political system that created apartheid. We’re supposed to lacerate ourselves because one nation decided to implement a suicidal plan of structural division within the borders of its state.
Although the African National Congress is a massive force in the overturning of the Laws that created Apartheid, their criminal activities are given short shrift in this film. They are presented merely as a legitimate organization with essentially peaceful motivations who were unjustly treated by authorities attempting to maintain order in the territories.
So, the story is based on the true story of a woman named Ruth First who was blown up in a car bomb years after this film is set. It’s 1963 Johannesburg and First (who has strangely been renamed Diane Roth) is raising a ruckus by writing inflammatory articles denouncing Apartheid. She is quite cool with the blacks who work for her or who show up for her drunken parties. A law has recently been passed which allows the government to arrest and detain any person for up to ninety days. The mood is subdued throughout this film as it’s clear the film wants to instill in its viewers that something terrible can happen at any time and an innocent person can be incarcerated. The local bobbies take grave interest in Diane and eventually come to arrest her and throw her in the hole for 117 days. The pace is far too lackluster and nothing much happens. Sure, the black Africans agitate and call for Nelson Mandela’s release but beyond that there isn’t much of anything going on. The film meanders for long stretches and the characters ultimately do not matter a whole lot in the end.
Diane has a confused, tormented little dollface named Molly (Jodhi May) who begs to be let in on her mother’s clandestine world. She’s none too popular at her boarding school where she is forced to sing in a massive choir and nobody seems to like her. When the film begins she does have a friend named Yvonne (Chalmers) who dumps her as soon as her mother is arrested. So, drifting and miserable she latches on to her thoughts and fantasies of her mother and hopes longingly for the day she can discover something useful about whatever it is her mother is working on. Naturally the film includes the sad plight of Sareda (Naidoo) who cannot see her babies due to the unforgiving laws. It’s so terribly demonstrated how awful this is and the audience is supposed to have a specific reaction to her plight but the film doesn’t pull this off and the viewer is left rather unmoved by the whole thing.
One thing that is demonstrated in this film is that there is a whole mess of White folks who are partying it up while paying no mind to the grief that exists all about them. They drink merrily and dance and act like everything is just as it should be. And it is, in their minds. The film sort of demonizes them for what it projects as their callousness but it doesn’t take into account the simple fact that when life is good you don’t go looking for trouble. You stick to your own and don’t bother with getting involved with criminal activity. This is a story about a woman who is presented as completely noble and who betrayed the simplicity of her kind to put herself at dire risk. She is put forth as a revolutionary who did what she could once she realized the severity of the situation. But somehow her whole mission becomes cheapened by the film’s tendency to frame her actions in such a deliberately manipulative manner. We are supposed to feel a kinship with her intentions but the end result is merely a beleaguered attempt to force the audience into a very particular point of view.
Tim Roth plays an associate of Dianas named Harold who is held up as an example of the type of White man who has diligently applied himself to challenging the legitimacy of the order. . He is shown on many occasions as an enemy of apartheid who fraternizes routinely with blacks and seems not to have a strong identity of his own. It’s interesting to see shots of Diane and Molly in a swarming sea of black as they identify with the plights of those oppressed peoples while simultaneously rejecting their own ethnicity. Whiteness is not really explored in this film although it does seem to be treated as something demonstrably false unless of course it is applied to the needy, oppressed and misbegotten. Those who fail to engage in the struggle for equality and acceptance are treated in a most criminal fashion. The blue eyed devil is the enemy here and those who remain contained in their own personal struggles without putting their Selves at risk are presented as blind and by extension corrupt.
Molly is a precocious child who represents the next generation of fighters who will carry on the struggle to end the state-sanctioned practice of separation and containment. Her self-discovery is a key component of the film and allows the audience to identify with the pervasive intensity of the battle against the status quo. She’s the innocent who is brought to understand her particular role in fighting against what her Mother has established through her writings and personal stance against present conditions. It’s obvious in the film that she is meant to be something akin to a great hope that has been properly inculcated into the dynamics of the struggle.
The performances in this film all serve the script and the general thrust of the film. Barbara Hershey projects all the necessary remorse and guilt that one expects from films of this ilk. Hershey captures all the essence of a character that is driven to facilitate change. Although its not particularly a nuanced performance, it proves to be effective in the end in establishing Diana as a force for good. Jodhi May gives us a character who doesn’t quite know how to establish herself against the turmoil she senses but doesn’t quite understand that brews around her. May handles Molly’s confusion with delicacy and a vitality that works quite well in the context of the film. The pain on Phyllis Naidoo’s face is palpable straight through to the end. Her character is presented as a victim of policies that have stripped her of the right to see her children. It’s terminally sad and Naidoo gives us that pain with clarity and deliberateness. Tim Roth is a silent force of reckoning throughout this film. Harold merely represents consciousness and the type of man who has seen the state of things and decided not to be one of those who fail to heed the call.
Overall, this film is a meandering clarion call to all those complacent persons who would rather ignore inequalities and the strict denial of freedoms that afflict great swaths of people. It’s designed to instill tremendous guilt to those whose priorities are focused strictly on their own families and maintaining their stake in the world. It celebrates the actions of criminals set in the guise of freedom fighters who nevertheless were succinctly committed to overturning a social order that kept their people down. Ultimately it’s decisively manipulative and doesn’t manage to elevate itself above the level of mere polemic to its great detriment.