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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

His big white self: Nick Broomfield becomes thoroughly part of the story

Nick Broomfield might not be aware of it, but His big white self his documentary on South African Eugene Terre'blanche and his Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging (AWB), follows a precedent established way back.

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In 1834 The Spectator bemoaned the "maltreatment of the aborigines" and according to it, this had no equal in history. The Afrikaner colonists had a very bad press, starting at the turn on the nineteenth century by an account of the British traveler John Barow, and a few years later in a book by John Philip, a compatriot.

This bad press, together with the capture of the Cape by the British from the Afrikaner colonists, the abolishment of slavery, and the replacement of their language with English in public life and eventually in schools, lead to severe discontent. This discontent reached such a level that they decided to abandon their farms and move inland.

In His big white self it's very easy to see why Afrikaners could be regarded with contempt. I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat as ultra racists candidly and casually reveal their shocking ideologies.

The hard uncompromising barrage of racist rhetoric (YouTube clip) and violence is at times hard to bear. Mercifully the film shifts gear every now and then to light hearted and even warm exchanges.

Made in Broomfield's now distinctive style putting himself firmly in the movie, it is full of warm interactions between him and these very same racists. One suspects that most audiences will feel some disquiet at the obvious close rapport between Broomfield and the driver (JP) and his wife (Anita). In fact New labour's ex spin mystro Alistair Campbell said as much during a BBC Radio 4 interview.

His big white self is the follow up on Broomfields The Leader, the Driver and the drivers Wife. That movie was recently voted in the 13th best documentary of all time in the UK.

In this movie, Broomfield goes back to South Africa after 14 years. News is that the fascist AWB leader Eugene Terre'blanche, who had been serving a 6 year sentence for assault and attempted murder, and has been released from prison. Allegedly Terre'blanche is a changed man, has found God and writes poetry.

Unlike The Leader movie, where Broomfield browbeats his subjects and pokes fun at them, he wanted to get closer to Terre'blanche and understand what makes him tick. The problem for Broomfield is that because of their previous tempestuous relationship, Terre'blanche repeatedly rebuffs Broomfield's attempts to see him.

Once again he ends up spending most of his time with JP and Anita, who has since divorced. Both of them struggle to come to terms with the new South Africa. JP is deeply disillusioned with Terre'blanche. He says that he "feels like a race horse, trained for a race" but it never came. The "race" he talks of being a full scale war, a revolution to bring about a white - presumably Afrikaner, but lets keep it simple - homeland. This has left JP a broken man.


JP - making a bomb is as easy as pie...

Anita however is doing more to come to terms with the new realities, she works as a nurse in a predominantly black hospital. (Chances are of course that Anita has always worked in black hospitals.) But lets not complicate matters. She has had no massive conversion from her racist views. But she is pragmatic, says she has no choice and tries to make the best of it. Like their former leader - and too many of their fellow countrymen mind you - both of them seem to have found their solace in religion and the promise of paradise hereafter.

The movie has many good moments, none less so when Broomfield finally tricks Terre'blanche with an English gent disguise and gets into his house. He even persuades Terre'blanche to read him some of his poetry. The camera work is - if not cinematic - good, and it's once again clear that Broomfield has an excellent intuitive relationship with the camera operator Jane Churchill, who happens to be Broomfield's ex-wife.

Throughout the movie he presents a large segment of expositional back-story. At the time (1990 - 1991) of Broomfield filming The Leader movie, South Africa had already started its decent into its most bloody period since the second Anglo-Boer War. The so-called township war. This is a history in which the AWB played more than just a bit part. And all he came back with was a very amusing portrait of AWB buffoonery and Terre'blanche's ego.

It was very entertaining and illuminating none the less, and since he interacted so successfully with the characters then, made for entertaining TV and gave a fascinating insight into Eugene's enormous ego. It was Broomfield at what he does best.

In this movie however Broomfield attempts to sketch a contextual grand narrative for which he should be congratulated. No documentary has yet tried to portray the tumultuous last days of Apartheid.

"It's interesting how quickly a generation forgets," says Broomfield. "People might not understand where the seeds of apartheid were, how it all came about." Broomfield told the UK Guardian.

But when seeing the film it immediately becomes clear why this bigger picture story telling can be such treacherous ground. This section of the movie is hardly about the seeds of apartheid.

Broomfield's seeds of apartheid starts off somewhere in the 50's but the flick really picks up with a history of the period after Broomfield left South Africa in 1991. It's the time just after he finished The Leader movie. It's a tightly edited, tense, action packed journey using news footage, focusing on Terre'blanche and his AWB in the run up to the first multi-racial elections, up until his release from prison in 2004.

It includes blonde journalist Jani Allen's I'll fated court case against The Leader movie, where Broomfield suggested she and Terre'blanche were having an affair. Because of the ensuing litigation Terre'blanche bedroom life was laid bare and he lost support with his conservative base. And so Broomfield becomes even more thoroughly part of the story.

If Broomfield was guilty of ignoring the danger of the AWB in his previous movie, in this narrative he swings in the other direction. He wildly over-states the AWB's importance. The average non South African viewer watching this could be forgiven for the impression that the battle during the depth throws of apartheid, was between only the AWB and on the one side and the ANC on the other. The Vryheids Front, Constant Viljoen and FW De Klerk only get a nod.

But the role of Buthelezi's IFP, the security forces, the co-called third force, and the Zulu-AWB alliance does not, never mind the PAC and the rest.

If you are inclined to believe like Alistair Sparks and others that the battle in South Africa was between the rival visions of Afrikaner and African nationalism and not just race, then you to will find it unfulfilling. If you are like me an Afrikaner, you might feel aggrieved that Broomfield suggests incorrectly that there was a half a million force of race-crazed AWB members like in this movie, ready to fight. The AWB at his height had little more than 20,000 members.

You might also find it more than a mere mild oversight that he keeps mum about the British historical role in this mater. To Broomfield the seeds of apartheid are those that don't slip through his facile TV friendly filter.

The irony of it all is that Broomfield really likes JP and Anita. He says – although not in the movie - that they are very loving and caring and that South Africans "on both sides" are very passionate people. He says, that he finds it amazing that the Afrikaners that had such control on all the leavers of state and power could give it up like they did – but that's not in the movie either.

When questioned by myself at the London premier of His big white self about this assertion of 500,000 race demons from hell, Broomfield reposts that he is not wrong; he meant Viljoen's Vryheids Front and the AWB forces combined. But there is no escaping though that the implication in the movie is that there were 500,000 extremely rabid Afrikaners out there, without showing that Viljoen and his supporters were of a different ilk, and probably made up more that 80% of the support of parties to the right of the National party.

In order to keep things succinct and ratchet up the dramatic tension all of this is understandable, it's makes for good TV. Film is an extrmely reductive medium and operates best at the emotional and visual level. Afrikaner trailer trash is garanteed to provide excellent fodder.

In his interview with the UK Guardian he says "it is the feeling that the incidental stuff can be much more revealing than the big questions".

True, but he does not achieved that in this movie. While it's admirable that Broomfield's work shows the contradictions and textures and of even those with the most objectionable views, it does not illustrate what kind of social forces shape a society that have these people hanging around its fringes. It is easy entertaining filmaking, but illuminates very little.

Taking the mickey of the Eugene and his AWB is of course fine, they invite it. But as soon as Broomfield makes a wider point, he has a duty to be fair. He may be genuinely perplexed by anyone questioning him why he does at least not mention the British racism towards Afrikaners, cultural imperialism, wars, and concentration camps in his movie. But the throwaway line in His big white self that the local white school is still Afrikaans language, and not English, shows - especially to Afrikaners – a disregard for history and them. (British colonial authorities banned the use of Afrikaans in schools a second time after the second Anglo-Boer War).

Feminist and liberal writer, Olive Schreiner commented that for Afrikaners that left the Cape on their Great trek, the worst "was the cold indifference with which they were treated (by the English), that they were regarded as a subject and inferior race."

It is this perceived indifference to their plight that the violence and racism in this film is a most extreme result of. Not to allude to that at all and the notable efforts of Afrikaners that do not follow that route might be more succinct and easy, but is not only wrong, it makes the film part of the perceived onslaught on Afrikaners. Broomfield either did not do his research or did not care. Like salt to a snail, films like this encourages Afrikaners to pull back into their shell, oozing foam, all boorish but emminently filmable. This cycle is bound to repeat itself.

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3 comments:

dave bones said...

"tricked him into reading poerty"? ha ha ha I don't think so, but as you say, Broomfield has a style and a very influential one. Do have a look at how I tried the same sort of thing with Abu Hamza's friends here. (click on the picture movie should start)


Your personal perspective is very interesting. I didn't think, or didn't notice that Broomfield was playing up who the AWB were, or that he left out the Afrikaners persecution by the British. I just assumed that most people knew about this and it was a diferent part of history. I thought the story was fantastic in that it collated all the news footage into a narrative.

I am interested to see that you believe Afrikaners are still suffering in some way. How do you mean?

Wessel said...

Hi Dave,

you said: "I thought the story was fantastic in that it collated all the news footage into a narrative." I agree he did a "great" narrative, but my point was that it was not a correct or fair narrative.

The AWB was a sideshow in the last days of Apartheid and this movie portrays them as the headline act.

Objectively Afrikaners today do not suffer more than the average black South African. By and large they suffer less. But suffer they do. They suffer from a massive existencial crises precipitated by an identity crises (Are they African?) and a very real fear for their safety and security. Read this Observer article for more on white fears and flight (Although Afrikaners are missing in its analysis. And they have less opportunities to leave South Africa than their white English compatriots.)

Another thing in Broomfields movie that got my back up is this. Broomfield is right to point out that their is huge problems of poverty in South Africa (It has increased in the last 10 years). But the people that he accuses are not the ones with access to the leavers of power and the state to make a meaningful difference to poverty in South Africa.

South Africa desperately needs a dose of Keynesian economics and not the new liberal policies that the ANC has trumpeted untill 2 years ago. Broomfield would do better to lay the blame at the door of President Thabu Mbeki.

Mike said...

Hallo Wessel!

A voice from your past. I Googled your name to check what you are up to. Not surprisingly you're still casting a critical eye all around you and providing excellent, well thought-through, commentary. That's great to see.

I enjoyed your comments on Broomflied's movie, although I'm afraid I never got to see it (didn't even know about it...). Yet, your comment, in my mind, seems to be spot on. History is too easily interpreted as a one-sided simple narrative. There are always multiple complex strands that together weave the basket of time. The more careful you are to uncover various strands of history, the better your insight.

Warm groete hier van Boesmansriviermond!

Mike