I was getting ready one morning a while back, when I saw a segment for what the anchor on the morning news described as a “highly controversial” South African film. As someone who’s drawn to “controversial” and “different” and “not-the-norm”, I was naturally intrigued. It stuck with me from that day, and now I finally got the chance to see it.
The film I’m talking about is Fatherland, and it’s a 2015 documentary by Tarryn Crossman, that follows four white Afrikaans boys as they spend nine days on an extreme right-wing military summer camp in South Africa. The film asks a harrowing question: Where is the line between racism and patriotism? It also gives us a direct line into the hearts and minds of these young boys, struggling to find and form their identities as South Africans in 2015, more than 20 years after our democracy was formed.
It took me a while to write this review, because I had to try really hard to separate myself from the anxiety and indignation the film’s content stirred in my heart; to look at it with a clear mind and see it as a work of expression of the human condition- or at least some part of the human condition.
When I think about the film as a construct, I’m in awe of the bravery of these filmmakers who had the balls to bring something like this to audiences around the country and the world. At the same time, it’s my guess that the filmmakers were essentially forced to subscribe to the no-blacks policy that the camp has in order to get behind the scenes to film what goes on there, and tell this story. Them being forced into that situation kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I see no other way this story could be told.
Apparently, these camps are designed to foster a sense of nationalism among new generations of Afrikaaners, but when you see them burn the South African flag, it’s safe to say that the line is crossed into absolute anarchism and racism. The military leaders of the camp can be likened to the comical way in which Nazi soldiers are often portrayed in modern renditions of Western war movies. Which leaves me wondering how fantastical those portrayals really are.
It’s pretty scary hearing an individual with military training rattle off supposed quotes like, “One must look at the negro not as one’s equal but as a child. A black man has the intelligence level of a 14 year old white boy” or “The truth is that there will definitely be a war in this country. So I’m preparing myself for a war that’s coming“. My biggest problem with men like the leader of the Kommandokamps (Commando Camps) Col. Franz Jooste, is that he has a position of power. He has resources and land and money available to run these types of camps that appear wholly unregulated, and openly teach racism. He’s completely set in his ways, and for me it was difficult dealing with the things he says.
On the other hand, the subjects of the film are very unique and interesting characters, but the two that stood out for me most were Sparky and Hannas. Sparky is a typical tween, more brave than smart, and very easily influenced. Throughout the course of the camp we see him move from uncertainty to a solid belief that what they are being taught at the camp is the way things should be.
Then there’s Hannas who is older, more mature and skeptical. He assesses each detail meticulously, and draws his own conclusions based on what he hears and sees. The same maturity and ability to think critically that gets him a leadership position at the camp, are the very same characteristics that allow him to reject the premise of the right-wing camp leaders and move forward after the camp, proudly accepting his beloved Rainbow Nation.
In terms of approaching this subject, director Tarryn Crossman could have gone with a number of avenues, but in my mind she chose the only one that really works in modern South Africa. Her subjects are youths; young minds highly susceptible to conditioning. You can’t look at these boys and not see children before you see any other labels society may place on them in their futures.
The thing about Fatherland is that it goes beyond asking the questions, but presents an explicit answer in your face, in a most unapologetic fashion – this film is definitely worth your time. Earlier this year, Fatherland was named Best South African Documentary Feature Film at the Johannesburg International Film Festival.
Check out the trailer for Fatherland below:
Here’s the new south African flag, just because (isn’t it beautiful?):
Click here to check out the TIA productions website, the production company that brought this film to life. The team at TIA have worked on a bunch of really interesting projects including ‘Hyena Boys’ and ‘I am Juli’.
About the Author: Stephen is a proudly South African film critic and aspiring film director, currently working on his first film project, #BreatheEasy2016. Follow him on Twitter @thesnagel for more film rants and ramblings.