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March 10, 2008 | by  | in Film |
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Goodbye Bafana

I’m often surprised at the paucity of films about South Africa given that it is a rich mine of not just gold and diamonds but also cinematic subject matter. As the setting of one of the most abhorrent yet enduring social experiments of this century, South Africa’s past is as compelling as its present is violent.

Goodbye Bafana
is a multi-national co-production filmed entirely in South Africa. It is based on the controversial memoirs of James Gregory (Joseph Fiennes), a white prison guard who spent much of his thirty-year career supervising Nelson Mandela (Dennis Haysbert) until Mandela’s release in 1990. Director Bille August situates the film neatly as both Gregory’s personal story and a history of apartheid’s later years. Gregory’s tour of duty begins in 1968 when he and his young family move to Robben Island. This setting is almost idyllic and as a dedicated nationalist, Gregory is able to perform his censorship duties without the troubled conscience which Mandela comes to provoke in him. Throughout the film Gregory’s commitment to apartheid wavers under Mandela’s influence, alongside the intensifying political climate of 1970s and 80s. I found it surprising that the film carried little moral condemnation for the white establishment. Though its members use the K word frequently in early scenes, they come to miraculously accept the inevitability of black majority rule. That said, the film effectively showcases the building pressure on white South Africa to accept change. I also found Gregory’s early racism a bit unrealistic, given his childhood friendship with a black boy and the way the film downplays the contact and influence between him and Mandela.

While the minor characters are authentically South African, the big players are imports. The acting is good, particularly the towering quietness of Haysbert and Fiennes’ disillusioned Boer, but that elusive South African accent proves difficult (Leonardo DiCaprio’s accent in Blood Diamond was also the subject of much controversy). There are a couple of moments in particular where Diane Kruger’s accent comes deliciously unstuck, revealing a southern Californian drawl under the veneer of flat Afrikaner vowels and clipped consonants.

Goodbye Bafana is a powerful film. Although its subject matter is harsh, it’s not difficult to watch. Given the poignancy of Mandela’s release and the lack of films on this issue, August and co should be forgiven for the somewhat obvious plot lines and the slightly gooey, heartwarming ending. Reviewed by Sarah Leslie.

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