DIANE DE BEER
DIRECTOR: Christiaan Olwagen
CAST: Clementine Mosimane, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Chris Gxalaba, Nomsa Nene, Rolanda Marais.
Age Restriction: 13 DLPV
When author Elsa Joubert wrote what is probably her best known novel, Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (translated by Joubert herself into English in 1980 as The long Journey of Poppie Nongena), she realised that in trying to describe the horrific mass injustice of an ideology like apartheid, it was best to tell a very personal story to get to the heart of it – and also persuade those on the side of the regime at the time to take a hard look at the personal suffering of ordinary people.
For something like Apartheid to succeed, you have to hide most of the horror from ordinary people who aren’t directly involved and that’s what Joubert so successfully reveals in the novel.
All these decades later, the story of Poppie Nongena, a domestic worker with an Afrikaner family, harshly exposes the traumatic life of one woman who has only one goal in mind, to care for her own family (mostly in absentia) by making ends meet while caring for the needs of another family.
The most obvious difference, a fact which sadly still matters in our world, is race. The family Poppie Nongena works for is white while she is black and not regarded as a participating citizen of the country she was born in – apartheid South Africa.
It is the levels of bureaucracy she has to endure while simply trying to keep her family together and alive as her children are sent to what the government of the day regard as her home, a place she didn’t know but because of her particular ethnicity was regarded as her birthplace.
For those who didn’t live in those times, don’t ask. That was the point. Nothing had to make sense because the people these rules were being applied to, had no voice and much of their hardship was hidden (in the townships, for example, where hardly any white people ever went). The enforcers were people who would never have had this kind of power in any normal society and they wielded it often with great relish and no reason.
Director/script writer Christiaan Olwagen says he regards the film as a love letter to mothers and believes that we have to remember the past so that this kind of madness is never practiced again. He also points out that it is a story for today’s migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, making the point that history – perhaps especially the worst of it – repeats itself time and again.
With a script (co-written by Saartjie Botha, someone who has mastered book adaptations with great insight) that hits all the right marks, his other genius is the casting of Clementine Mosimane as Poppie. This was no easy task, because to start with, the film was shot in Afrikaans (with English subtitles) and the actors all had to know and speak the language.
But more than that, it is the essence of Poppie that determines the heartbeat of the film. She is a quiet woman who goes about her life without complaining because she has to find a way to live best with the cards she has been dealt. These are harsh and she has discovered that in the country she lives, if she wants to make any headway, she has to become invisible and not make any demands on the people with power – even those who seem to care. The system was set up in a way to discourage anyone to reach out a helping hand. Even for the small stuff. And few did. If you were black, you were usually out there on your own.
Mosimane colours her Poppie with grace and dignity so that the harshness of everything that happens to her is amplified and understood for what it was. The only thing that determined your well-being was the colour of your skin. And if it was black, you were born to serve – nothing more. Because of her performance, the lump in your throat never disappears and you are drawn into her world every step of the way.
There’s little that has to be said about the system because the way it lands on Poppie’s body is all we need to feel every single indignity she has to suffer every minute. It might be hiding under a bridge with her husband from the police, or a white madam who can’t bear to face her own life, so she focuses on the lives of others – especially those who have no recourse.
Mosimane gives a performance of breath-taking honesty and fortunately this is where the focus lies. She is also supported by an outstanding ensemble inlcuding Van der Merwe, Hanekom, Marais, Nene and Gxalaba.
Less successful, were the crowd scenes of which there were a few, some heated, others not so much. But a certain amount of staged choreography creeped through in the costumes, the props and the crowds themselves.
Comparison is odious, but I was struck by the world of mayhem and murder created by Sam Mendes in 1917 taking you back to the fields of World War 1. In Poppie one can “witness” every stone being carefully placed to create a ravaged road.
The crowds also seemed too practised rather than spontaneous – which is what one would want to achieve – which detracts from the emotions because as a viewer, you watch the action rather than tap into the story.
But these are minors, which don’t diminish the important story. Olwagen has proved with this one that he has earned his film stripes in a big way. As a celebrated stage director (and I hope we haven’t lost him totally to the big screen), he has spent the past few years making movies.
Still a youngster in artistic terms, his talents grow with each outing as it did when he was directing for stage. It’s going to be a great journey to witness as his confidence and skills expand with each new venture.