Sunday 22 December 2013

Elegy for a Revolutionary (2013)

Director: Paul Van Zyl
Stars: Brian Ames and Martin Copping
This film was an official selection at the Filmstock Arizona 2013 round of the revolving Filmstock film festival. Here's an index to my reviews of all selections.
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
While watching Elegy for a Revolutionary, a quintessential South African story rooted in the struggle for freedom and the ethics of violence, it seemed all the more timely because of the recent death of Nelson Mandela, for many years the leader of the African National Congress or president of South Africa. After all, he served 27 years in prison for doing exactly what the characters in this short film do: perpetrating acts of sabotage in a concerted campaign to overthrow the government and so end racial segregation, the policy known as apartheid. It could have been far more timely, however, for Paul Van Zyl, the South African filmmaker who wrote and directed. While he deserves respect for making the film at all and for doing so when he did, I'm sure his Indiegogo campaign to fund it would have done far better a year and a half later, when the world's attention was, for a brief time at least, focused on South Africa in shared mourning for a man who perhaps did more than anyone to change it.

The characters we meet are attempting to change it too, even though they're white. Donald Quick and Jeremy James are university friends who abhor apartheid and take part in demonstrations against it. They're apparently based on characters in C J Driver's 1969 novel, Elegy of a Revolutionary, itself based on real experience in the South African underground of the sixties. We're not told which demonstration changes Quick and James, but we assume it's the Sharpeville massacre, during which police opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing 69 and injuring 180, but also prompting the founding of a military wing of the ANC, by Mandela among others, whose activities landed him in jail. Quick and James follow a similar path, deciding that they must join the ANC and fight for what they believe in, albeit through deliberately non-lethal acts of sabotage. The story explores the conflicts they find in that choice, between law and a higher moral duty, and in particular whether violence has any justification in such a fight.
At 23 minutes, it condenses the source story substantially, dropping the lead characters from six to two, but it still packs a lot of thought into its running time. The strongest scenes focus around loyalty, as our heroes, if that term is appropriate for people who are, in the truest sense of the word, terrorists, realise that friends and cause can becoming conflicting loyalties. I can't go much further without venturing into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Quick and James take very different routes and there are great ironies in how those routes are perceived by others. Not only are we asked to question their actions and decisions, we're also asked to figure out who the hero is and who the traitor. The ethical minefield they find themselves traversing makes that identification difficult. In many ways both of them are heroes and both are traitors too. Most writers would do much for a story that contains so much depth and conflict. Van Zyl gives us clear pictures with no ambiguity woven in; the complexity is all in our interpretation.

Brian Ames and Martin Copping are strong as the leads, giving decent performances throughout with a few excellent scenes each. Perhaps each have lesser scenes too, but they're not helped by the budget. The most obvious downside to the film isn't in what the actors do, it's in how obviously few of them get to populate many of the scenes. While we're not sure how much time passes, it's not a short span, yet we're given only one prison guard, only one cop, only one judge. Surely, in urban South Africa under a tyrannical government, there would be many of each but the budget didn't stretch that far. It's notable too that most scenes are quiet, not from an absence of score but from an absence of background noise. This is the quietest prison I've ever seen. It's apparent enough to give the film a stage feel, as if it was written for a small space and cast accordingly. At least the players are consistently up to the task, but the story was always going to win out. It's a timeless one that shouldn't need to be told. But it does.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review.