Skin

Recently in this space I wondered whether it was really in South Africa’s interest to make another trek into the weeds of wat verby is for the purpose of extracting money from foreign firms that may have aided and abetted apartheid crimes. That is where cases now before a federal court in New York are taking us.

Here is a journey of whose value I am much more certain. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, go and see the movie Skin, now winning acclaim on the international festival circuit and scheduled for release in the UK in June,  the US in August. Hopefully, you won’t have to travel that far but it rather depends on Ster-Kinekor which seems to be having trouble making up its mind.

Skin tells the true story of Sandra Laing, born in 1955 to Abraham and Sannie Laing, an Afrikaner couple from Piet Retief, he of German stock and she of Dutch, more or less. Somewhere along the line, their gene pools picked up a little indigenous DNA which, as if to present a raised middle finger to the social engineers of apartheid, blossomed forth in Sandra.

Skin is filmmaking of a very high order, on a par with The Reader, for which Kate Winslet won an Oscar this year. As in that film, there are no transcendent heroes here, just people, confused, afraid, wanting to love and be loved, caught in the web of a great evil and trying to make a go of things by their own best lights.

Skin is at times excruciating to watch. The father desperately wants his daughter to be white, not simply to avoid looking like a cuckold or because of the way he has been raised to think of black people, but because he loves her, wants the best for her and assumes that she will be doomed to poverty and misery if she is classified black. In the process, he makes her life a living hell of humiliations, great and small.

He sends her to a white school where she is tormented by schoolmates and masters alike; he has her subjected to the crude, pseudoscientific measurings of the classifiers; he sends her off on dates with lumpen Afrikaner farm boys. When the state finally agrees to call her white, she elopes with a black man, then is threatened with the loss of their children because they are a product of the union prohibited by apartheid. Their home, located in a so-called “black spot” is bulldozed. And so it goes.

I cannot recall a film that captures so well the textures of South Africa, South Africans and life under apartheid as I first encountered them when I came to the country just after the murder of Steve Biko in 1977. The director, Anthony Fabian, an Englishman, spent nine years on the project from the time he first heard Sandra interviewed on BBC radio, tracked her down to Tsakane on the East Rand and won her permission to make the film. He used the time well.

The cast, as South African as the money people would allow, is stunning. The young Sandra is played by a marvellous newcomer, Ella Ramangwane, her mother by Alice Krige, her lover by Tony Kgoroge. Sam Neill is as right in the role of Abraham Laing as any non-South African could be. Sophie Okenedo, the daughter of a Nigerian father she never met and raised by a Jewish mother, brings an extraordinary empathy to her portrayal of Sandra as teen and adult.  One feels a certain dread at the prospect of Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman mangling the accents of François Pienaar and Nelson Mandela in Playing The Enemy.  Skin merits no such trepidation.

Fabian gave a special screening of the film to Parliament last year, and also, with the real Sandra on hand, to Oprah Winfrey and the students at her Leadership Academy for Girls. The response in each case was positive. Deservedly so. Skin helps us to an understanding of South Africa, where it has come from, from what it is made and what makes it remarkable that is unlikely ever to emerge from a New York courtroom.

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