Country of My Skull – the movie

17 April 2003

Samuel L Jackson and Juliette Binoche are in Cape Town for filming of a $15-million screen adaptation of Antjie Krog’s multiple award-winning Country of My Skull, a heart-rending account of South Africa’s unique attempt to put its past to rest at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC was established in 1995 to record atrocities committed by all sides during apartheid. In two years, its committees heard evidence from 2 000 people (and written statements from another 18 000) and received 8 000 applications for amnesty for apartheid crimes.

Antjie Krog Poet Antjie Krog headed the public broadcaster’s team covering the hearings. But Country of My Skull is more the work of a poet than a reporter: a riveting mixture of transcript, storytelling, poetry and commentary.

The feature film is already attracting widespread interest, partly because its two principle characters are mega stars – Samuel L Jackson (S.W.A.T, Changing Lanes, Pulp Fiction) and Juliette Binoche (Chocolat, The English Patient). Both have been in Cape Town for a few weeks already, preparing for their roles.

Other key actors are Brendon Gleeson (Gangs of New York, Artificial Intelligence, The General) and South Africans Nick Boraine (Promised Land, Slash) and Menzi Ngubane (Gaz’lam, Ubambo Lwami, 37 Honey Street).

Heavyweight moviemakers
According to the South African Film Website, many other movie greats are involved in making the film. Country of My Skull is directed by John Boorman, whose previous films include Deliverance, Hope and Glory, The Tailor of Panama and The General.

The screenplay is by Ann Peacock, known for Cora Unashamed and A Lesson Before Dying. Producers are Robert Chartoff (Rocky, Raging Bull and The Right Stuff), Mike Medavoy (Thin Red Line) and Lynn Hendee, with David Wicht and Mfundi Vundla as co-producers.

Samuel L Jackson SAfilm.org.za reports: “The story is told through the eyes of Langston Whitfield (Samuel L Jackson), a Washington Post journalist sent to South Africa to cover the TRC hearings. Coming face to face with the perpetrators of murder and the victims of torture on both sides of the political divide, Whitfield is forced to face his own demons.”

Juliette Binoche’s role is loosely based on Krog herself. She plays Anna Malan, an Afrikaans poet who is covering the hearings for radio. “She is shattered by the accounts of the cruelty and depravity committed in the name of apartheid. Confronted by the depth and suffering inflicted on her fellow countrymen by a system that she had failed to challenge, Anna must reconcile her past and carve a new future for herself and her family.”

Parallels with Iraq, Algeria …
At a recent press conference where director Boorman and the stars spoke about the film, Boorman said he thought the film could have as great an impact as the TRC itself, because it could convey so much at once.

According to the Cape Argus, Boorman said: “We feel that such an impact . the notion of a bloodless revolution, and notions of Ubuntu and reconciliation, is vital to so many things going on today”, clearly referring to the war in Iraq.

Said Jackson: “Foregiveness and understanding are all things that are achievable if people sit down and listen to one another. Hopefully the war [in Iraq] will be done by the time the movie is finished.”

Binoche, who has spent considerable time with Krog, told the Cape Argus that she was finding her role “emotional and demanding”.

“It is about the horror and at the same time seems to be normal from the outside . For me as French, there are parallels with Algeria . we didn’t have a TRC and are still waiting for it”.

Country of My Skull is being shot entirely in Cape Town over 10 weeks with a budget of $15-million. The crew comprises mainly South Africans, with many local actors and extras being used. Recently, 200 residents from Langa were hired for a six-minute scene. The Works, a UK-based company is distributing the film internationally.

SouthAfrica.info reporter