Thursday 20 May 2010

Exploring the multi-racial laboratory

Katrina, by Jans Rautenbach (1969)

With the recent murder of white supremacist leader Eugene Terreblanche by two black farm-workers, and the problems facing the new government in the run up to the Football World Cup, two films made in different decades under the apartheid Regime remind people of the brutality and weakness of that policy - and the desperate attempts by ordinary South Africans to survive with dignity in an absurd and unjust society.

Katrina, directed by Jans Rautenbach and produced by Emil Nofal, was made in 1969 – a time of newly stirring unrest. It was the year Steve Biko founded the black consciousness students’ organisation, SASO and only three years since the assassination of the hard-line Nationalist Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and his replacement by B. J. Vorster, member of the far-right Ossewabrandwag (OB).

The film is based on the book by Basil Warner called Try for White – the phrase used to describe those from the coloured community who, under apartheid, attempted to pass themselves off as white to take advantage of the privileged access this would give them.

Katrina September has deserted her coloured family and her village to ‘try for white’. She is now known as Catherine Winter, and has been living alone and working in the white community in Cape Town. Her adult son, who also looks white and is unaware of his mother’s roots, is due to return from Britain where he has qualified as a doctor. On the journey home, he falls in love with a local girl from the white Afrikaner community and hopes to marry her as soon as he has settled.

The film starts with a shot of Katrina sitting on stool in a whites only café, playing a guitar and singing a song with a sad and haunting melody. A priest comes in and looks on. He appears smitten. The priest, we learn, is fleeing from a troubled past too and hopes to remake his life here.

They fall in love and the priest asks her to marry him. If she accepts, her true identity may be discovered. Will the priest still love her?  What will happen to her son if she comes clean?  These are the questions which torment both Katrina and the audience. We can sympathise with the choice Katrina has made to improve their lives in a brutally unjust society, but we feel uncomfortable about the denial of her coloured family and identity; the dying mother, the brother consumed with hatred for all white people and the deserted father of her son.

In an interview given at the time, Emil Nofal says he wanted to explore the multi-racial laboratory which South Africa was to him and to wonder if it will succeed as a multi-racial society. He chose the coloured community because he felt the government had no solution to the ‘coloured problem’, but if white South Africans abdicated responsibility then they would be doomed.

The film poses two views on prejudice and identity: the liberal but ultimately unconvincing view of the priest who protests it should make no difference; and the conservative view of Katrina’s brother, who like the producer Emil Nofal, believes one should be proud of one’s identity and not betray it. ‘You are born what you are, and for your lifespan that is what you are going to be.’

The moral ambiguity at the end is modern and welcome, but contemporary audiences may find the shooting techniques jar a little. Cuts from stormy emotional exchanges to crashing turbulent waves are a bit too obvious. The two principal male coloured characters are blacked up whites. The outside world, represented by the members of the rural coloured village. the white diners in the café where Katrina sings or the people on the street, is a silent, non-interactive backdrop to the melodrama between the four main characters. This may be due to the difficulty of making such a film in apartheid South Africa; nevertheless, it gives the film the tense dramatic quality of the theatre, or something like Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone. It focuses the mind on the moral issues Nofal and Rautenbach want us to explore.

As Nofal predicted, the coloured community still poses a problem for the new South Africa. The Cape Flats, the area to which Cape Town’s large coloured community was brutally relocated, is notorious for its drug-fuelled violence and gangster wars and reveals their disconnection from the new South Africa. Cape Town, with its large coloured population, is the only region that has voted for the Democratic Alliance party rather than the ANC, and this community maintains an uneasy relationship with the ruling black government.

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