The first courtroom drama I ever saw was Kramer vs Kramer (1979) starring Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. It is a genre that I particularly enjoy. The most memorable South African courtroom drama to date came twenty years later in the form of Gavin Hood’s A Reasonable Man (1999) in which a lawyer defends a man who killed a baby while believing that he was killing a tokoloshe (an evil being). Now Oliver Schmitz brings us another court room drama, Butchers and Shepherds, based on a book of the same name (which is in turn based on facts arising out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) by Chris Marnewick, a Durban based Senior Advocate and author.
I am rather ambivalent about this movie set in the late apartheid era, a movie which brings with it a powerful anti-death penalty message. South African stories need to be told, and the horrors of the death penalty is one such story. Over 4200 prisoners were executed by hanging in South Africa, many of them for political crimes, before the practice was suspended in 1989 and finally abolished in June 1995, one of the early decisions (the second) of the then brand new Constitutional Court.
I have issues with some of the artistic license taken here. I lived through Apartheid South Africa and point out that white people didn’t do unpleasant jobs like wash up after dead bodies, cut them down, transport them or bury them. I know it makes the story more powerful. But isn’t witnessing death enough for a sensitive human being?
I think the story is one that should be told and it has been told well – little touches like the pee gathering at the feet of a man on his way to his execution are phenomenally moving. Apartheid is what economist Chris Hart describes as our “national scar”. We still have a lot of intellectual and artistic processing to complete in this regard.
The movie will have an international impact. The capital punishment debate is ongoing in the United States of America and this movie will be a power advocate for abolishing it. Schmitz, together with Anant Singh, has also created a movie of which South Africans can be proud.
Garion Dowds is superb in his role as the 19 year old accused, Labuschagne. The movie centres around the flashbacks his testimony provokes, and the sensitive handling thereof aroused my maternal instincts. John Weber, the defense attorney, is played by Steve Coogan. The script correctly points out that it is the right of everyone, even the most heinous of criminals, to have a competent defense. I enjoyed the unpacking of the legal process. However, the script as it stands fails to wrench my gut into knots which take days to relax. Perhaps that is because the flashbacks are too brief, interspersed with other scenes which diffuse the emotion. Also, as mentioned above, I found the curious lack of racist inflection to be most disconcerting. South Africa is a highly racially aware society, and to treat it any other way in a movie of this nature is just weird.
I give this movie 8/10. It is probably not a date night movie if you want romance rather than discussion thereafter.