Treurgrond is a South African film about farm murders, directed by Darryl Roodt and starring controversial pop star and actor, Steve Hofmeyr. According to the film’s website, the most frequently asked questions address its political agenda, entertainment value for non-extremists and whether it features racial discrimination. While it answers these questions as you’d expect, it’s interesting in and of itself that these would be potential concerns for a movie goer.
The film is fictional, centring on a small Afrikaans farming community in South Africa, bracing themselves as a wave of farm attacks continues. As anxiety levels spread and tensions mount, Lukas Van Staden (Hofmeyr), takes it upon himself to protect his family, friends and farm. We journey with a number of characters: Lukas, his wife, his brother’s family, a local teacher and two detectives who interact with a fervent community of farmers.
While it claims it’s not politically-motivated, but rather trying to generate awareness, there are serious undercurrents. Steve Hofmeyr’s involvement already suggests an agenda, leveraging his celebrity to either absolve him of recent controversy and simultaneously acting as a figurehead for Afrikaans pride and solidarity under duress.
While he’s regarded as a bad boy in the Afrikaans music scene, infamous for his controversial remarks, he still wields an audience of lovers and haters. Casting him as the lead, gives the film an edge and while he’s not known for his acting ability, he has screen presence and his performance is quite captivating.
“Oh look… and here’s another one of me on the tractor.”
His unofficial co-lead is Jana Strydom as Helena Schoeman, a versatile actress, who is almost unrecognisable in this hard-and-fast role as a detective trying to get to the bottom of the farm murders. Erica Wessels plays his concerned wife, Nellie. Richard Lukunku feels the tension as Sergeant Morena, while Shaleen Surtie Richards and Boikie Pholo bring their wealth of experience to the table as supporting characters in Katie and Daniel Lebona.
Darryl Roodt is a prolific film-maker, who knows how to manage his resources, creating some truly majestic moments of heartbreaking honesty and raw beauty. While his credits include accomplished and important South African films such as: Sarafina!, Cry the Beloved Country, Yesterday, Little One and Winnie Mandela, it’s also dotted with some less remarkable efforts.
Unfortunately, while Treurgrond wrestles with a contentious issue and had the potential to be a drama of the same magnitude as, As It Is In Heaven, it will be regarded as one of Roodt’s “what ifs”. He makes some bold artistic choices and leverages our imagination, but there’s an inconsistent ebb-and-flow to this rather bleak drama.
Treurgrond features some breathtaking cinematography and hefty themes, but the storytelling is scattershot, the script is underwritten, the direction is heavy-handed at times and it features more adverts than some glossy magazines.
We’re split between an obstinate farmer wanting to protect his family and a free-wheeling detective with a huge responsibility. The central theme is simply farm murders… focussing on the state of unrest with much finger-pointing and a growing feeling of helplessness. There are many conversations in this tense atmosphere, but it’s stuck in a state of arrested development.
There’s no attempt to become what could have been a South African take on Straw Dogs (or an anti-Straw Dogs) or a tense community portrait drama like As It Is In Heaven. Instead, the film throws the contentious situation out there… gets some players to bring it down-to-earth and then waits for the inevitable.
If it weren’t for the distracting product placements… a close up of items being checked out at a cashier, montages with agricultural products, scenes in front of branded trucks… you’d think it was a straight propaganda film.
Positioning a generous family man and contributing member of a community as the would-be victim of a senseless act of violence by faceless attackers, while playing on the heightened emotions of an innocent community subjected to a state of violence and an ill-equipped thin blue line… how is that not political? They say there’s no racial discrimination, yet Sergeant Morena is under constant scrutiny because he’s not a local.
Treurgrond has its heart in the right place, trying to generate renewed awareness and donations towards the plight of those affected by this kind of violence, but it’s bound to stir up the emotions of those who see it without entertainment value as a clear and present objective.
This drama often feels like it’s on the cusp of something substantial, but is either hampered by laughable product placements, stuck in the mud characters or derailed by its half-hearted subplots and subversive political undercurrents. It promises much, but under-delivers with the filmic equivalent of a cul-de-sac. Given this tone, you could say Steve Hofmeyr was perfect for the role.
The bottom line: Half-baked
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