I wasn’t really prepared for this film. I was expecting a small-scale drama set in the apartheid era. I knew the film had struggled to get distribution and my hopes weren’t high. On the other hand, I wanted to support a South African film. If I’d thought about it a little more, I would have remembered reading/listening to an interview with Sophie Okonedo and I might have been less surprised. The film is based on the true story of Sandra Laing: Sophie Okonedo with her Nigerian-Jewish background obviously felt strongly for Sandra.
What I was lucky to see, in one of the film’s few cinema screenings so far, was a great melodrama which was highly engaging and very affecting with extremely fine performances all round. My partner was amazed to learn that the film is only showing in a few places as she thought it was a mainstream film that would please audiences everywhere. I’m struck by the similarities between the distribution of the film and the similar fate that befell another biopic about a brave young woman, Sophie Scholl – more on this later. First an outline of the story, without giving too much away.
Outline (no spoilers)
The story begins with Sandra Laing as a young girl of 9 or 10 who is being driven to the boarding school in South Africa where her older brother is already a student. Sandra has so far been schooled at home in the bush where her parents run a general store. She has been a happy girl in a caring environment and starting school is a shock to her. This is 1965 and the apartheid system is in full operation. Sandra’s parents are Afrikaners and so she is officially ‘white’. But Sandra does not look like the other children in the school. Her appearance suggests that her background is mixed race which under apartheid means that she should be classified as ‘Coloured’ (one of four racial groups defined by the apartheid system). When the other parents object to her presence, a battle ensues between Sandra’s father, a stubborn man who insists that she is ‘white’, the school and eventually the apartheid authorities who are called in to make a ruling.
The film plot actually begins in 1994 on the first day of free elections in the new ‘Rainbow Nation’ of South Africa. Sandra is a woman of 40 working in a factory when the TV reporters arrive to discover that the end of apartheid has come too late for her. For thirty years, the stupidity (not to mention the immorality) of apartheid has caused Sandra and her family great pain. If this makes it sound that the story told in flashback will be unremittingly bleak, take heart. As the image above attests, there is a more hopeful end to a story that contains both joy and despair.
In generic terms I would place the film as a melodrama. As usual, the critics refer to melodrama in pejorative terms (“the film skirts melodrama . . . , . . . doesn’t fall into melodrama” etc.) But here is a CinemaScope feature with use of landscape and mise en scène and some heavy symbolism (Sandra’s comfort object as a child is a large doll with golden hair). There is an emotional score that reminded me at times of the ‘realist melodramas’ associated with Rossellini. The camerawork is actually quite conventional and the film doesn’t have a particular style (causing the usual problems for some critics who seem to think that a lack of obvious stylistic features means that it is a ‘made for TV’ movie). The sheer emotional content of the story forces the actors into what I would term ‘melodrama mode’ and it is this and the musical score that contrasts with some of the scenes which deal with the bureaucratic nightmares of the apartheid system (and post-apartheid bureaucracy) which suggest melodrama most strongly – and which otherwise might have pushed the film towards ‘social realism’. I should say that there are also some very funny moments in the script which again relieve the sense of trudging through a ‘social issue narrative’.
The film is also a melodrama because it focuses specifically on the emotional relationships between Sandra and her mother and father and the ‘significant others’ in her life (not to give away the plot). Although this is a true story (with some fictionalised additions) it isn’t a conventional biopic. There are plenty of things about Sandra’s life that we don’t see, instead her ‘story’ becomes the basis of a specific emotional drama about identity.
Reading some of the audience comments from the very well-received screenings at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, I can see that I wasn’t the only one weeping through much of the last third of the film. The audience in Bradford was a good one for a film with so little publicity and I got the impression that they were as taken with the film as we were – which begs the question, “Why did no major distributor want to take on the film?”
As well as the truly wonderful Sophie Okonedo (surely up for more awards on the strength of this performance), the film stars Sam Neill as the father. These are two known Hollywood names you would expect would help to get the film a release. Screen International has suggested that recent South African apartheid-set stories (such as Goodbye Bafana, 2007) have been viewed as box-office poison. The background to Skin is quite different to that of recent Hollywood excursions into South Africa. Writer/director Anthony Fabian has been determined to make the story of Sandra Laing’s experiences for some time. He’s a UK-based director, born in the US and brought up in Mexico and France. I realise that I first became aware of him through one of his documentaries, Township Opera (2002) which he made for BBC4. The story of an opera group from the South African townships and its eventual success in giving London performances was most enjoyable. That film was a joint production between the BBC and Fabian’s own company Elysian Films.
Skin appears to be a completely independent production between Elysian and some smaller South African companies. There is a good deal of background on the very useful Elysian Films website. If you want to find out how the film got made, I highly recommend the site. It also offers a short film about the real Sandra and shows extracts from the ‘promo film’ that Fabian made as part of the sales pitch for the film. As with the Sophie Scholl film I mentioned earlier, the theatrical rights to Skin were bought by ICA Projects which has released the film on just two or three prints (the poor quality digital print we saw was, I assume, not a true representation of the 35mm original). The Elysian Films website lists showings at one cinema per week through to October in various venues, some quite small. I obviously support the rights of people in Tewkesbury to see the film, but Skin should be available in every UK city – it’s a film that deserves to be seen. It’s quite ironic that it should get a limited release just as District 9 hits UK cinemas. I suspect I’m one of the few people to see both films in a two week period.
See also the film’s own website.