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Little-seen but fabulous South African films of the 1980s: ‘A Private Life’.

November 5, 2011

‘A Private Life’, dir. Francis Gerard, 1989. (A BBC/SA production)

Jana Cilliers played the mixed-race or 'coloured' Stella Du Pont.

Mainly due to its detailed historicity and characterisation, as well as its illustration of the often ridiculous so-called petty apartheid of the 1950s and 60s, Gerard’s independent/made-for-TV film A Private Life comes the closest of all of the 1980s films to making a humanistic, properly contextualised and nuanced critique of the effects of apartheid on individuals, families and society (and I include internationally-made films like Attenborough’s Cry Freedom). By using a descriptive and sensitive intimate or ‘interior’ gaze that bears witness to the domestic, private experiences of ordinary South Africans under apartheid, Gerard’s film is able to painfully describe the stress and individual toll of this ‘petty’ oppression in a way that allows us to identify and suffer along with these characters. Unlike lauded films like Cry Freedom, A Private Life is a small film, but effective.

The first sequence we see, after initial postcard-like images of the Cape Town sea and the harbour, features a policeman in the dated uniform of the 1950s – a caption has confirmed “Cape Town 1950”. Opening with an image of local security forces is a clear comment on the security state that apartheid SA was to become, especially in the 1980s when the film was shot. The first 5 minutes of the film offers multiple scenes of mid-century Cape Town urban reality, labour and the social and material fabric of the city: black and coloured dockworkers, fishermen, labourers; a cleaner at the police barracks; white, working class Afrikaans policemen half-dressed inside the barracks jostling and joking about ‘tits’; the Continental café where Stella works as waitress, its patrons tarts and sailors; a black newspaper seller on the streets at dawn. We see Stella running up brick steps towards a dilapidated Malay Quarter, an Imam calling to prayer in the distance. Later a brutal Sergeant Smit (a leering Ian Roberts) demands to see her ‘card’ at her work; the same policeman leads a rough ‘charging’ of black ‘criminals’ at the police station, observed with distaste by Jack, who leave the force and starts work in the boat yard, like many other working class Afrikaners in the Cape. Further on in the film, Stella’s population registration card arrives and says ‘Coloured’ and we accompany her on her attempts to get reclassified in a series of monolithic state institutions. Paranoia is also ever-threatening in scenes of a police raid and roadblock and related suggestions of apartheid officialdom: files, desks and dark corridors, stamped documentation, newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts, petty discrimination on buses, proclamations of race in emblems as insignificant as a school blazer badge.

Petty apartheid included the segregation of toilets.

While the remainder of A Private Life is largely set in urban Cape Town the film features two brief yet highly emblematic scenes set in the pastoral Klein Karoo. In the first the young Du Pont family makes a road-trip into the Klein Karoo in the smart new car Jack has bought for his family. The scene is poignant: as the typical Karoo landscape rolls past the car windows the parents and children play road games, sing songs, have ‘holiday fun’ like any normal family. It is nonetheless clear that they have never before been to the Karoo; that they have only ‘visited’ or imagined these places, probably in pictures or from anecdotes. They stop at a remote graveyard where the children play hide-and-seek amongst the stones. On their way home they are stopped at a roadblock, an abrupt and shocking end to the fantasy and their tenuously high spirits. In the very next scene the open spaces of the Karoo have been forgotten in the return to their cloistered suburban life.

At the film’s conclusion the earlier driving sequence is mirrored almost exactly. A car travels the same Karoo road, carrying their dead son Paul’s ashes to the remote Karoo graveyard (he has killed himself), which they scatter on top of the graves. The tableau is set against the vast Karoo flatland and a backdrop of low mountains or hills. Jack and Stella are small figures in the immense landscape. As they look outwards over the indifferent panorama of the Karoo, Jack says “beautiful country” without any irony.

An indifferent panorama - the Klein Karoo.

The film’s gentler picturesque and pastoral natural landscapes (the beach, the Klein Karoo) create an almost unbearable contrast with the bureaucratic and claustrophobic urban nightmare of the Du Pont’s daily life in the Cape Town ‘Mother City’. It is also clear that Gerard had little intention of idealising the city in any way – Gerard describes the three days he spent with the real-life ‘Du Pont’s’ ‘an emotional rollercoaster’ and he clearly had a strong personal response to their tragedy.

While the film is a succession of painful incidents, it also documents close-knit family moments with a mix of brutal honesty and warmth. Even when their son commits suicide, the final image of the film is a united Jack and Stella surveying their country. It’s not a hopeful film, but it is an empathetic one. It’s extremely hard to find these days but worth seeking out for a portrait of a sad era in SA history and one best not forgotten.

Bill Flynn (right) was Cilliers' real-life partner and starred in the critically acclaimed play 'Saturday Night at the Palace'. It is also a must-see film with outstanding performances.


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