Portraying tragedy without a meaningful point of view is a sticky situation for a movie to find itself in. Easily one-upping Hotel Rwanda‘s wooden direction and trivial performances, John Boorman’s In My Country takes such a generic and wrong-headed approach to the telling of its story that it self-destructs in a minefield of naiveté and hypocrisy. The film is set during the 1996 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, a roadshow tribunal that granted more than 1,100 Apartheid perpetrators amnesty for the murder and torture inflicted upon 20,000 South Africans after soliciting full confessions, and at its heart lies a collection of scenes, no doubt culled from actual transcripts, in which said victims and their family members bear witness to the countless atrocities. Without this testimony the film would have no reason to exist. But when it chooses to filter their words and emotions through the eyes of an Afrikaans poet (Juliette Binoche) and a Washington Post reporter (Samuel L. Jackson), two journalists who cautiously befriend each other while covering the trials, it is a gesture akin to pulling the pin from a hand grenade and then putting it back into your pocket.
These two main characters, who alarmingly represent a media that does not comprehend why an entire people would collectively extend curative intimations to its oppressors and thus imparts not facts but sensationalistic confusion, offer competing, selfishly imploding viewpoints: the Guilty White Perspective and the Angry Black Perspective. Binoche’s white poet feels responsible because her bourgeois passivity implicitly condoned genocide committed in the name of her race; as she cannot see past her own remorse, she cannot grasp how years of violence and hatred can be met with understanding and forgiveness. When colliding with Jackson’s familiar bug-eyed, vein-popping indignation (he’s even supplied with a token white bad guy to repeatedly threaten), there’s no shortage of reductionist dialogue (Jackson caustically reminding Binoche that “Skin is everything…it draws a line in the sand”) and inarticulate dementia (Binoche tediously droning on about rape during a dazed family dinner). What else can these lost souls do but hop into bed together, though that she seduces him shortly after having an emotional collapse in front of the entire court is indicative of the level of sanity (or lack thereof) the movie is operating on.
By this point it is easy to wonder where those victims of Apartheid violence, whose stories were supposedly so important, fit into this picture. Given the surplus of Binoche’s self-pitying meltdowns, the film appears less concerned with their suffering than with the agony she endures being paid to listen to them. Indeed, the only black South African character in the film with more than three minutes of screen time is Binoche’s good-natured assistant who is curiously mum about the proceedings but jokingly references Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner after discovering his two companions have hit the sack together. It probably wouldn’t be fair to call Boorman, an astute English filmmaker whose best efforts (Deliverance, Point Blank, The General) are small, psychologically intimate genre pieces as vivid and intense in subject as they are efficient in narrative, insensitive and shallow for disrespecting his material like this—after all, In My Country wears its blindfold of good intentions like a badge of honor. But as the last reel uncorks not only a triumphant courtroom comeuppance but also a suicide and a murder of two secret Apartheid collaborators, reconciliation is the last thing on this movie’s mind. In My Country means to be about the lessons of oppression and a well-deserved aftermath of healing, but it winds up violent and exploitive, a film that encourages narrow feel-good responses to reactionary tendencies and emotional uncertainty. Peace, love, and understanding, apparently, are best served with a side order of .45-caliber satisfaction.