NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH C
South Africa France (108 mi) 2008 d: John Kani
Award winning South African playwright John Kani takes his first play (2002) and moves both behind and in front of the camera, directing and playing the lead role in the film. Unfortunately he gives a somewhat wooden performance, standing around and reading the lines as if sitting on a stool, attempting to enunciate as best as possible using perfect diction. As an older man, he couldn’t be less spontaneous and more predictable, so he feels like a lecturer, as if we’re being read and lectured to. Since this is about history, it all but dulls the otherwise searing subject matter. Much of this feels force fed, made easy to digest through elaborate explanations in a near one-man play, growing ridiculously simplistic at times. The problem is the unlikability factor, as the lead character who dominates the screen time spends way too much time selfishly thinking of himself, and not in flashbacks in a WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957) revelry, as if he’s painfully looking back at himself with moments of admiration as well as regret, but his resentment is expressed through his current outrage where he believes people have done him a major injustice. In an intimate theater this may work, but on film, this self-centered tone of personal squabbles pales against the reality of the nation’s policy of forgiveness, which is nothing less than a transcendent moment in history. The film never gets on track and with barely a hint at soul searching, where the characters are never fleshed out. Unfortunately everything is wrapped in a package where the harsh edges are smoothed clean that makes it all too palatable for the viewers, who needn’t do any heavy lifting in this film.
He’s worked in his South African village library since the early days before apartheid when blacks were not allowed to enter the library, and met his wife there. He expects to be named the library director in the next few days, a position he feels he’s earned, and at age 63, one he’s paid his dues to qualify for. We hear him freely express his thoughts as Sipho, the narrator and lead character, while also seeing newsreel shots of Archbishop Desmond Tutu heading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. He’s received news that his younger brother Themba died while living in London, a social activist and exile from the anti-apartheid movement, a man who could generate energy and enthusiasm into an audience through his gift of speech. As his body is being shipped back to South Africa for burial, Sipho has mixed feelings about his brother, and other exiles who received such favorable treatment upon their return while others who worked hard for the struggle were often overlooked. Themba was the one who always received favorable treatment from his family and special recognition from his country while Sipho labored hard and arduously to generate the money to support him for most of his adult life, including the college career that he could never obtain for himself as his family never had the money. Sipho’s troublesome memories about his brother parallel the country’s difficulties in coming to terms with the reconciliation trials, as horrendous offenses are being admitted to, yet the white perpetrators receive amnesty and are not held accountable for brutal murders, torture, and other acts of violence. Those are the terms of the hearings, as otherwise no one would step forward to admit to these crimes. Still, when the nation hears the full extent of the organized criminal acts directed against its own black citizens, it’s easy to associate justice with revenge.
This subject is further explored when the differences between the two brothers is exacerbated by the behavior of their children. Themba’s body is brought back by his grown daughter Thando (Motshabi Tyelele), an insufferably spoiled brat who carries more luggage than can fit into most people’s homes, and who is bringing back the cremated ashes instead of the body they were expecting. Already set in her ways, she has little respect or interest in African ways, as she’s used to doing exactly as she pleases. While Mandisa (Rosie Motene) on the other hand is Sipho’s daughter, who looks after him daily, and lives her life in accordance with the blessings of her father. Everything comes to a head when Sipho receives notice that he does not get the job, which sends him on a drunken bender. When the two girls find him in the corner of a notorious bar, the night is still young, as Sipho will spend the night railing against the injustices of his life, including the recollections of his brother’s atrocious behavior. When Thando thinks he’s just jealous because his brother was a movement hero, Sipho lays out what sacrifices are needed to be a responsible man, something his brother could never be, as he never worked a day in his life, yet he accepted all the hero worship adulation while continually receiving support from his family. Sipho describes his day of reckoning, where he will demand that he be installed as director of the library on the grounds that he is entitled to it, threatening to burn the place down if they don’t honor his wishes, after which he can claim amnesty by admitting his crime. Again, his vow of revenge is his criteria for obtaining justice. In the morning when he sobers up, it’s just another day, but it’s also the day he lays to rest his brother’s ashes and with it the enormous resentment he has carried around with him for years.