On the surface of things

Anthony Fabian is not the most likely candidate to make a film about race in South Africa. The first-time feature film director from Britain had previously worked on short films, documentaries and classical music programmes.

A feature was a big step up. Yet he returned to South Africa — a country with which he has become well acquainted in the past 10 years — for the local release of Skin, a biopic about the life of Sandra Laing.

Some may be familiar with Laing’s story, a story so bizarre it could only be true. The child of a white Afrikaner couple, Laing was born with dark skin and curly hair, the result of polygenic inheritance, or a “throwback”, to distant black ancestry. Kicked out of her all-white boarding school, she was reclassified coloured and then, after a widely publicised court battle, reclassified white again. Struggling to fit in with Afrikaner society, the teenage Laing eloped with a black man. Leaving behind her white family and identity, she began what Fabian describes as a “journey into colour”.

“What makes the story so powerful is the bizarreness of the genetic element. It highlights the irrationality of racism, because if it hadn’t been for that she would have been brought up just like everyone else. It proves how much of a social construct racism is,” says Fabian. He first heard of the story in 2000 when Laing was interviewed on BBC4.

“I was immediately struck by how powerful the story was and I was very moved by it. I realised that it definitely had something to say to people on a bigger scale than just a radio interview,” he says. The scale he had in mind was feature length.

Soon afterwards, Fabian met Laing. “It’s impossible not to be moved by Sandra when you first meet her. There’s something very touching, very vulnerable [about her]. She’s very shy but at the same time I recognised that there was great strength inside her. There would have to be to survive all the things that she went through. I was very keen that when we came to make the film that that strength would come across, not just the awkwardness and the damage.

“The damage that was done to her as a child and through her early teens was very deep and it’s almost as if it’s changed her make-up, the wounds are so deep.”

Fabian quickly secured the rights to Laing’s story, but it would be another 10 years before the film finally made its way to the screen. In that time he fostered a relationship with Laing, helped her set up a small business and move to a more spacious home. He also laid down roots in South Africa.

“I felt that the only way this [film] was going to work is if it was completely and utterly recognisable as South African. That’s why the casting was all South African, apart from Sam and Sophie, the crew was mostly South African, the directors of photography were South African and I spent a lot of time in the country getting to know the place and the culture, making friends, making a documentary in 2001 called Township Opera and essentially trying to immerse myself as much as possible because it is a very complex country.”

Skin covers more than 30 years and, in telling Laing’s personal story, it also tells the greater story about apartheid. “It was very difficult to know what to include and exclude so that the film would make coherent narrative sense,” Fabian says.

“The emotional through-lines, which had to do with this child and her parents, had to be kept in the foreground. At the same time we had to have forced removals, elections, reclassification scenes, and all of these other structural elements of apartheid blended and folded into the story seamlessly. It was a sort of excavation into the past and the system, and there’s a whole subplot which is about identity, belonging, classification and the bureaucracy of apartheid.”

Garnering support for the film, both inside and outside South Africa, was difficult. “There wasn’t a South African film industry to speak of [at the time], apart from foreign productions coming in, so there was very little support from inside South Africa to make a film like this. A lot of people thought apartheid was old news and one shouldn’t be telling these stories any more, not realising the relevance of the story today and the fact that racism hasn’t gone away as a problem,” he says.

“And there had been no precedent of a successful South African film dealing with the subject. Hollywood always works on precedent, so it was a huge struggle to persuade people to come aboard.”

Casting was another obstacle. Fabian needed to cast a light-skinned black actress for Laing’s role, but she had to be high profile to help raise money for the project. “Halle Berry would have been wrong and Thandi Newton didn’t want to do it,” he says. Six years into the process, Fabian offered the role to Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Sophie Okonedo.

But his casting woes didn’t end there. “Casting well-known actors in [the supporting] roles was also difficult because name actors don’t want to play supporting roles in an independent film with a first-time director set in South Africa.”

Eventually, Fabian rounded out the cast with Alice Krige and Sam Neil as Laing’s parents.

Skin has received generally positive reviews internationally but for South African audiences the story is sure to hit closer to home. There’s an authenticity right down to those horrible stainless-steel boarding-house kettles and dowdy middle-class apartheid-era interiors.

An almost unrecognisable Sam Neil — as Sandra’s uncompromising, stricken father — sways between delicate and jarring, while Okonedo wavers between mousey and courageous. Her performance begins to make sense only after you meet the real Sandra Laing — it is a fairly accurate impersonation of the woman herself.

One can’t help feeling that Fabian’s documentary background might have prevented him from breaking away from the true-life version long enough to paint a more colourful picture.

And yet he must be commended for trying to explore a subject that South Africans themselves seem reluctant to deal with. “There isn’t enough representation of the experience of ordinary people and the effects that apartheid had on ordinary citizens.”

Although the film may showcase the talents of international stars, there is no Hollywood ending for Sandra Laing. Her parents died years ago and her brothers still refuse to make contact with her. But Fabian is optimistic about the effect the film could have on Laing’s life. “I’m very confident that the film will ultimately provoke a reconciliation,” he says.

Meet the real Sandra Laing

Sandra Laing has found some peace. Hers is not a story of triumph over the apartheid system. Rather, it is the story of struggle and survival.

Now the matriarch of a large family — she has seven grandchildren and another on the way — Laing lives in a neat three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Johannesburg and she no longer works in the make-up factory where she toiled for years to support her children.

Without the constant financial worries she once faced, Laing is more confident than she was when director Anthony Fabian first met her. He says today she’s “happier in her own skin”.

She used to bite her nails down to the quick in those days. Although she’s now more relaxed when speaking in public, she still rubs her hands together anxiously and keeps her eyes downcast. This could signify a lack of confidence, or it could be a sign of respect. In the culture Laing has adopted as her own, you lower your gaze to show respect for someone.

Asked whether she still considers herself Afrikaans after all these years, Laing says: “Yes, but I love Zulu more because most of the time I was with Zulu people.”

Laing doesn’t remember much of the controversy that surrounded her in her early years. “I was very young. I just wanted to know why I couldn’t go to school. They just told me they were still trying to find a school … My parents never did explain why the other children called me names. My mother just told me not to listen to them,” she says. “My father wanted me to be his little white girl, to go out with white boys.”

But she refuses to place any blame on her parents. “There wasn’t anything that they could have done differently because I was darker than them … My parents were good people and they did love me. They tried to make me happy.”

The walls of her lounge and dining room are adorned with pictures of her family; sons and daughters, grandchildren at birthday parties. There are even pictures of Jenny, the mother of her first husband, Petrus Zwane, a woman who has acted as her own second mother over the years. Although Jenny is now in her 90s, the two are still in close contact. There are reproductions of pictures of Laing and her parents, given to her by Fabian. And there is a single faded picture of a curly-haired boy in school uniform — Adriaan, the little brother she hasn’t seen in 40 years.

Many people have tried to contact Laing’s brothers over the years, but they have remained aloof. “They said they want to forget about the past and go on with their lives. And they want to protect their children. Their children don’t know about me.” she says. Rather, their children don’t know she is black.

Laing says she hopes the message audiences take away from the movie is that people shouldn’t “let their children suffer like I did. If something happens to that person, they mustn’t be scared to talk about it because it helps. I still don’t know why I’m darker than my parents and my brothers. Why didn’t they explain why that happened?”

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