Cannes, France – After a slow opening week of generally disappointing entries, the Cannes Film Festival was electrified last weekend by “A World Apart,” a powerful story about the relationship between a 13-year-old white South African girl and her mother, an anti-government activist. One screening of the film was followed by a five-minute ovation.
“A World Apart,” which went on to win the special jury grand prize at Cannes, is the movie that “Cry Freedom” should have been, a strong and heartbreaking story about lives torn apart by apartheid. It stars Barbara Hershey as Diana Roth, a South African journalist involved in left-wing dissent, and Jodhi May as her teenage daughter, Molly, who is treated as a pariah after her father flees the country and her mother is jailed.
The movie is all the more poignant because it is based on a true story. Shawn Slovo wrote the screenplay, basing the role of Molly on her own life. (Slovo now works in New York as an assistant to Robert De Niro.) Her father, Joe Slovo, fled from South Africa in 1962 and now lives in Zambia, where he is the only white executive of the African National Congress. Her mother, Ruth First, was assassinated by a letter bomb in 1982.
But all of those events are still in the future as the movie opens in 1962, in a comfortable suburb of Johannesburg. The teenage daughter is happy in school, at ballet class, and with friends her own age. But her home life is not conventional for a white South African; her parents are committed to the ANC and the struggle against apartheid. In an early scene, her father kisses her goodbye and escapes from the country, one step ahead of arrest on subversion charges.
The mother, played by Hershey in another of her strong, confident performances, continues to work for an anti-apartheid newspaper until she is arrested and jailed under the 90-Day Detection Act. The harrowing central section of the film shows her interrogated by representatives of a system determined to break her spirit. In the film’s most painful moment, she is released at the end of 90 days, and then re-arrested 10 minutes later in a phone booth and jailed for another 90 days.
But the film is not only about politics. From the point of view of Molly, the oldest of three girls, her mother loves politics more than her children. And the emotional center of the film comes in an overpowering scene near the end, where the tearful girl accuses her mother of not loving her enough, and her mother tries to explain her politics and her feelings.
(For their work in “A World Apart,” Hershey, May and Linda Mvusi, as Elsie, the family’s maid, were jointly awarded the best actress prize at Cannes. The honor is a repeat performance for Hershey: She won the best actress title last year at the festival for “Shy People.”)
“A World Apart” is the first film directed by Chris Menges, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of “The Killing Fields” (1984) and “The Mission” (1986). What is surprising is that it is a director’s film, not a cinematographer’s – he is more concerned with nuances of human feeling than with the big, showy photography of those two films.
As someone who studied for a year in South Africa in 1965, I can testify that the film’s portrait of everyday life feels accurate. Filmed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, it shows the comfortable middle-class life of privileged whites, for whom blacks are mostly a backdrop of servants. There are also scenes in a black township, where the children go to visit their maid’s family, and become friendly with her brother – a smiling young man who loves Chubby Checker’s “Twist,” and who eventually dies in government detention.
What I disliked so much about Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom,” the 1987 film about the friendship between South African activist Stephen Biko and journalist Donald Woods, was how the whole second half of the film edged away from politics and became a standard thriller about a man’s attempt to escape across a guarded border. In “A World Apart,” after the father leaves, he’s gone.
More than any other film I have seen, “A World Apart” accurately portrays everyday life in South Africa, and the experiences of white dissidents. To be sure, there has yet to be a film with the same depth of insight into the lives of South African blacks, but that is not a criticism of “a World Apart.”