In the film Amandla: A Revolution in Four-part Harmony, Thandi Modise – chairperson of the National Council of Provinces and the first woman to be jailed for uMkhonto we Sizwe activities – describes the last seven days of a death row inmate as a probability between two extremes. “Whenever someone was told that they didn’t get their last minute pardon, they would start communicating. When the desperation would set in, either they would become, if they were political prisoners, very political or very religious. Either way, there would be song.”
In the Oliver Schmidtz-directed and Anant Singh-produced Shepherds and Butchers, based on a book by Chris Marnewick, there are no songs on death row.
The story follows the defence of the teenaged prison warder Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds), who, on a stormy night in 1987, guns down seven black men in a road rage incident. The murder comes after what is a particularly difficult week for Labuschagne, in which 21 men are executed in 72 hours. The year turns out to be a record year for executions, with 164 men eliminated.
Labuschagne, an expert at calculating ‘drops’ (the rope length to weight ratio required to perform an efficient execution), has been present for all executions in his two-year stint before his multiple murder charge.
His defence team, consisting of lawyers Johan Webber (Steve Coogan) and Pedrie Wierda (Eduan van Jaarsveldt), plans to mount a defence based on Labuschagne’s mental breakdown and occupational trauma.
A warrant officer related to Webber tells him “The warders know all the men they drop. They are their caretakers then they string them up.”
A fair amount of Shepherds and Butchers unfolds in courtroom, as Webber leads his witness towards revealing his vulnerabilities and the distress of participating in so many executions. This is offset with flashbacks of Labuschagne on the job, having to violently subdue resisting prisoners and routinely execute men whose names and identities he has come to recognise.
Webber hones in on one particular case, in which a white inmate Labuschagne befriends is eventually executed. Labuschagne suffers a great deal of mental anguish as a result of this particular execution. Firstly, he believes the inmate, like his accomplice, should have been pardoned. Secondly, he has to live with having participated in this man’s execution, having once escorted the man to his visiting family.
The singling out of this particular relationship between two white men on the opposite sides of the legal system is perhaps shorthand for the political and racial climate of the day. While Labuschagne gets wedged into the daily routines of all the men he escorts to the gallows, his bond with the white prisoner named Eben reminds us that in 1987, it is white lives that matter most.
Perhaps true to the times, the film does nothing to humanise prisoners in their last moments. They never speak, neither in defiance nor in desperation. They utter no last-minute prayers or final declamatory manifestos. They are a wretched, groaning and whimpering cluster who, even in the swelling of a jailhouse resistance that is eventually subdued and straitjacketed, do so without the humanising agency of voice. Through the lens of the film, the only aspects that remind us of the condemned men’s humanity are when, noosed up and suspended, they lose their capacity to control their bodily functions, resulting in pools of piss and faeces seeping down their pants.
Viewed in the context of the time and the working environment, there is a method to this direction. Schmidtz’s treatment of the gallows environment forces us to inhabit the simultaneously mundane and bestial nature of legally sanctioned executions. We are forced into Labuschagne’s vantage point as he is schooled into a new brotherhood.
But this argument falls flat when we step out of the slaughterhouse. In a scene where Labuschagne is forced to single-handedly bury the corpses of executed men, a near-accident occurs en route to the graveyard, forcing the two occupants (Labuschgne and an unnamed black assistant) to step out of the vehicle and inspect their cargo.
For lack of a better term, the assistant’s disposition is minstrel-like, more befitting a Leon Schuster set than an apartheid-era crime drama. The families of Labuschagne’s murder victims hardly fare any better, singing on cue and sharing two spoken lines among them. On the other end of the spectrum, there are tons of lingering shots on Dowds’ visage, who fails to consistently render the necessary emotion.
But looking back on Schmidtz’ career, neither the toyi-toying extras in Mapantsula nor the serial car thieves of Hijack Stories enter the realm of believability. Mapantsula’s crowds dance on cue, with no real emotional build up to their toyi-toyi. Hijack Stories’ thugs are parodies, their post-apartheid backdrop a decontextualized canvas. And by the same token, Singh’s big budget sensibilities are stuck in an anachronistic milieu that will not be inconvenienced by nuanced and sensitive storytelling. Although one might want to accept these representational issues as a by-product of this being a film driven by white protagonists, one can’t do so with a clear conscience.
Shepherds and Butchers opens at Ster-Kinekor on October 28