Britain’s Channel More 4 (a part of Channel 4) this week broadcast a documentary by South African-born actor Anthony Sher. The film, ‘South Africa: Murder Most Foul‘ was billed apocalyptically as Sher visiting South Africa to:
“… investigate why post-apartheid South Africa is tearing itself apart in an orgy of violent crime. Has the dream of the rainbow nation inspired by Nelson Mandela just 13 years ago disintegrated?”
I don’t live in Britain and Channel 4 has not discovered the joys and benefits of streaming its content online, so I had to ask a friend, media academic Herman Wasserman (he’s at the University of Newcastle) what he thought about it. Herman usually has some sensible things to say on politics and media culture.
So below follow Herman’s thoughts:
We have to understand the other to understand this country, the acclaimed journalist Pearlie Joubert says slowly and almost painfully, because we have all rubbed off onto each other. She is explaining to Anthony Sher, the acclaimed British (South African-born) actor, why it is important that he speak to the leader of the Americans gang, to gain a larger context for the documentary on crime in South Africa he is making.
Joubert’s lines are the most insightful and poignant ones in the whole of Sher’s documentary. The film focuses on the tragic double murder of two young middle class white men, Brett Goldin and Richard Bloom in Cape Town in 2006. Goldin was to play alongside Sher in a production of Hamlet in the UK, and Sher saw in Goldin’s tragic life a parrallel to his own.
Joubert’s words are lost on Sher, who exclaims that his disgust at the murder of the two young men at the centre of his documentary makes him want to say ‘fuck the other side of the story’.
Sher breaks down in tears, as he does on several occasions in the documentary, and it is left to Joubert to console him. The camera dwells on her hand patting his back, as Sher soaks up the attention and sympathy.
This short scene is representative of what this documentary is really about – Sher’s own feelings of shock, horror and outrage at crime in South Africa rather than a contextualised, indepth investigation into the possible causes, circumstances and social realities underlying social pathologies.
I am sure it was well-intentioned, but for all the crying, it was almost as if there was a curious lack of empathy. Sher’s narcissistic approach prevents him not only from really listening to those on the other side — the tik or crystal meths addicts on the Cape Flats with whom he has a wide-eyed interview are merely ‘crazy’ and belong to a ‘different planet’ — but also from turning his justifiable outrage at the devastation of crime into an informative and enlightening documentary.
Yes, there is the superficial attempt to speak to black victims of crime as well, and some luminary talking heads are trotted out (Andre Brink, John Kani, Albie Sachs, among others).
But despite all the horror and pain of the subject material, the film failed to touch me. Perhaps I’m blasé. But perhaps it’s just because I couldn’t see my country properly from where it was hidden behind Sher’s imposing self. Sher’s quote used in the marketing material for the documentary says it all: “What if the same thing had happened to me before I could realise my ambition?”
Yes Anthony. It’s all about you.
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