You can't go home again

Alan Paton had more than good reason to “suspect” that Karel Schoeman’s novel Na die Geliefde Land, or Promised Land, is a “masterpiece”. JM Coetzee, too, has rightly written about Schoeman’s “superlative art”.

The background to the story, like all good allegorical tales, is quite simple.
An Afrikaner grew up on a farm until he was five, then he went overseas with his parents. His father was in the diplomatic corps and they lived in Switzerland.

Now both his parents are dead and he’s come back to see what his dying mother, like most expatriates, so desperately yearned for.

But this is not the South Africa of his youth. Here the boot is on the other foot and the black government is as brutal as its fascist white predecessors’, which more or less brings us to the film Manie van Rensburg should have made, had he not blown out his brains.

The first half of writer/director Jason Xenopoulos’s Promised Land is beautifully evocative. He has changed George Neethling into an Englishman and that anglicised Afrikaner, played perfectly well by Nick Boraine, is a different but recognisable angle to the story. So too the idea, in the most moving scene in the film, of Neethling strewing his mother’s ashes over the rubbished remnants of her birthplace.

Xenopoulos has done the gay brother Paul’s (an impressive performance by newcomer Daniel Browde) yearning for city life and its supposed sexual tolerance full justice, just as he has done with the headstrong tomboy, Carla, as played by Yvonne van den Bergh. One can imagine her, like her forebears, preferring to cross the mountains barefoot than live under English rule.

Actors like Louis van Niekerk, Grant Swanby, Tobie Cronje and the poet Wilma Stockenström play their parts as though born to them, while Dan Robbertse’s sullen and bearded Hendrik, with only about 10 words at his disposal, best captures the spirit of Schoeman’s tale (and Van Rensburg’s style).

Furthermore, Xenopoulos manages to infuse the work with some dry humour and liberal doses of the geliefde taal — the beloved language. Lastly, the breathtaking cinematography by Giulio Biccari, combined with Rene Veldsman’s effectively abstract soundtrack, all evoke that eternal question about a tribe and individual that constitutes the first three words of the book: “Who are you?”

However, that question demands an answer and somewhere along the line decisions were — and necessarily had to be — made. The first was to date the piece by turning the Hattinghs into Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging adherents, circa 1993. The second was to change the gay brother Paul into a mere victim of patriarchy. The third was to concentrate too much on a back story.

The first decision finds its most vulgar climax, if you’ll pardon the pun, in a wooden penis being made as a gift for a rebel leader (Ian Roberts) with a small AWB flag in its pee-hole. The second decision completely undermines Schoeman’s understated premise that all sexuality, as personified in the straight/gay triangle of George, Carla and Paul, is ambiguous. And the third leaves the story no time to show one of the great farewell scenes in South African, if not world, literature.

Also, Roberts’s Gerhard has neither the modulated belligerence of a Clive Derby-Lewis (so many apartheid-era thugs had such English names) nor the religious intensity of a Eugene Terre’blanche.

Surely he would not allow his fiancée and that uitlander to virtually make love to each other on the dance floor in front of him on the night of their engagement?

Promised Land is a huge step in the right direction as far as local productions go, but to take a profoundly universal drama of identity and turn it into a pseudo-Hollywood mystery that implicitly consigns Afrikaners to a lunatic fringe in the past might well kick its producers in that part of their anatomy where it hurts most, that is the box office.

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