An Act of Defiance: a hard-hitting, confrontational film about personal courage and the fight for justice

Jean van de Welde, “An Act of Defiance” (2017)

Quite a hard-hitting and confrontational film this historical drama on the incidents and trial that sent political activist Nelson Mandela to prison for nearly 30 years turns out to be, with a focus on the barrister who defended Mandela and his co-defendants in the trial and how his own life was turned upside-down as a result. In 1963, Mandela and his inner circle of black African and Jewish activists in the African National Congress are arrested at Lillesleaf Farm in Rivonia, in Johannesburg, on charges of conspiring to commit sabotage. Lawyer Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller) reluctantly agrees to defend Mandela and the other activists at their trial in spite of his own connections with the African National Congress through the outlawed South African Communist Party; indeed, some of the documents seized by police at Lillesleaf Farm are actually in his own handwriting. Mandela urges his co-defendants to plead not guilty to the charges of high treason, punishable by the death penalty, and appeals to them and their legal counsel to put the South African government on trial during their trial over the system of apartheid blanketing the country’s institutions that denies non-white people the same rights, privileges and freedoms as white people have.

As the trial progresses, Bram Fischer’s sympathies with the defendants are called into question, especially when the legal counsel for the prosecution reveals his link to Mandela’s inner circle, and Fischer and his family are subjected to harassment by the police. While his wife Molly and their children support Fischer and his desire to see justice done – incidentally only two of Fischer’s three children are portrayed in the film – the Rivonia trial has a huge impact on all their lives, even after cross-examination ends, the judge delivers the verdict and the sentence, and Mandela and his fellow co-defendants are forced to return to prison; over the next few years, strange incidents suggestive of continuing government and police harassment occur in the family’s lives which result in tragedy and Fischer’s own arrest, trial, sentencing and imprisonment.

The tone of the film is very sober yet matter-of-fact. Initially it is slow and little of note happens until the trial begins. Then the pace and the tension are relentless as the trial grinds away, wearing down Fischer and his legal team. Relief at the verdict when it comes, is but very short-lived as the film details the consequences of Fischer’s involvement in the Rivonia Trial on him, Molly and other members of his family. The acting is good and consistent if fairly minimal.

While highlighting the role that members of the South African Jewish community played in fighting apartheid alongside Mandela and other black Africans, the film does little to show the support non-white people might have demonstrated for Fischer and the hostility he and his family might have faced from their own Afrikaner community. Divisions among the whites in their attitudes toward the Rivonia Trial and its participants could also have been shown. Ironically, for all the emphasis the film places on how South African Jewish individuals worked with black people to fight apartheid, most black characters in the film are basically passive bystanders. Without the overall political context that was South Africa in the early 1960s, viewers outside the country who have little knowledge of its history before the 1990s will not be able to appreciate the depth of hatred and enmity against Bram Fischer for defending Mandela and the activists from the government and its institutions, the huge risks he took in doing so and the sacrifices he was forced to make later. The film highlights how the search for justice and the advancement of society demand considerable personal courage from individuals who, all too often, end up being persecuted and suffer great personal tragedy.

District 9: sharp social and political satire buried under a sketchy action thriller plot

Neil Blomkamp, “District 9” (2009)

The inspiration for this science fiction film arises from a context in which racial segregation and exploitation informed the basis for an entire society. In 1966, the South African government used a 1950 law to declare an area (District 6) in Cape Town a whites-only area and commenced clearing out the black communities there. Two years later, the forced removal of people began and by the 1980s, nearly 60,000 people had been turfed out. The intention behind the forced removal was to open up the area to developers (with the government perhaps benefiting financially as well). Thirty years later, with the Israeli government pursuing similar apartheid policies of removal against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and for similar reasons, little has changed and this is where “District 9” packs a strong punch.

The film opens its narrative some 28 years after an alien spacecraft has arrived in Johannesburg and deposited its load of sick and malnourished refugee aliens who resemble giant walking shrimp crustaceans there. The aliens are made to live in a slum area of the city and their conditions are portrayed as debased and grim. Under pressure from the public, all white, black and shades in-between, who fear and distrust the alien presence, the South African government decides to evict the aliens and force them to move elsewhere, and gives the job to a private security firm MNU. A rather ordinary administrator employee Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked by his sceptical father-in-law Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), to oversee the relocation. While clearing out the aliens, Wikus enters one of the aliens’ homes and picks up a cylinder of alien liquid. He accidentally sprays the stuff into his face and from there the film traces Wikus’ transformation from human to alien.

When MNU discovers what is happening to Wikus, the company detains him under heavy security and begins investigating the effects of the transformation. Almost straight away, MNU scientists realise that Wikus’ changing DNA and blood enable him to fire weapons captured in the past from the aliens and Smit, on hearing the news, callously gives orders for the vivisection of Wikus. Wikus escapes and makes his way to District 9 where he enters the place where he picked up the cylinder and is reacquainted with the alien called Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son. When Johnson realises what is happening to Wikus, he and Wikus strike a bargain: if Wikus and he can return to MNU to retrieve the cylinder, whose juice is needed to power an underground jump-ship up to the mother-ship and kick-start it back into action after 28 long years, Johnson will try to find a cure to reverse Wikus’ transformation.

From then on, the action thriller story with its attendant violence spurs into action and takes viewers all the way to the end. Along the way, the film fleetingly touches on various contemporary issues: the practice of corporations under the pretence of scientific research exploiting humans and aliens for military purposes; the scapegoating of the aliens and the use of fear to impose police state measures on society as a whole; the outsourcing of government functions to private companies for profit and the negative consequences that arise as a result; and the examination of racism, xenophobia and greed. A powerful undercurrent in the film is the paradox of Wikus becoming more fully human in a moral sense as his physical humanity ebbs away: he becomes more compassionate and discovers reserves of bravery and heroism in defending and aiding Johnson and his son.

The use of actual interviews with Johannesburg residents (about Zimbabwean aliens) and fictional interviews with MNU employees gives the film an air of gritty reality as well as fleshing out details of the plot and its themes. Unfortunately however, these interviews and the layering they give to the film are quickly ushered into the background as the Hollywood-style action plot with its emphasis on stereotyped characters such as the psychotic mercenary Koobus Venter (David James) and Wikus’ long-suffering missus Tania (Vanessa Haywood). Too much of the film is given over to various gunfights, each more bloody and using more special FX than the last.

In the end, the film just about holds together thanks to Sharlto Copley’s acting. What a pity though, that Copley had to shoulder an otherwise rather sketchy film whose potential as sharp social commentary remains frustratingly dormant. The film’s conclusion appears open-ended and one senses that a sequel in which Johnson returns with the panacea to reverse Wikus’ transformation and Wikus confronts his callous father-in-law is needed.

Chappie: in need of a longer and better format to treat all its characters, narratives and themes

Neil Blomkamp, “Chappie” (2015)

In amongst the ruined buildings, the body count, the junk metal and unexploded cluster munitions that form the detritus long after the end credits of this cheerful movie have finished rolling, there’s a garbled message of sorts about taking charge of your destiny and being more than what you were born to be or what your circumstances have made you, along with an investigation of what consciousness and the soul are, whether both can transcend death and the limitations of physical biology. It’s this amalgamated theme that holds the film together and more than compensates for its stereotyped characters, the ragged story-line with frayed loose ends and an ending which needs a sequel to suck up the energy “Chappie” leaves behind.

The actual plot itself is not original and looks like something Mary Shelley and Isaac Asimov would have dreamt up together were they employed in an alternative universe as exhausted third-rate script-writers in a factory employing such people 16 hours a day, every day, with no time off for annual leave. I am aware of other reviews that have found bits and pieces of other films like Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” in the plot. In a future Johannesburg, with crime rates higher than the city’s tallest buildings, the police force has contracted out SWAT team functions to Tetravaal, a company specialising in automated military security … for the police and similar civilian law-and-order institutions. The company comes up with robot scouts, the dream child of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who spends his free time creating his own robots to keep house and an artificial intelligence program that miraculously bestows consciousness and sentience into otherwise inert machines. Deon needs an actual machine to test his program and a damaged robot police scout becomes his guinea pig. He uploads his program into the scout and – VOILA! – the machine goes live.

Three punks on the run (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser – Jones and Visser are members of South African hiphop group Die Antwoord), who need to steal $20 million to pay off Johannesburg’s biggest crime king-pin Hippo (Brandon Auret), find information about Deon and his robot scouts on the Internet, track him down and kidnap him and his sentient robot. The punks take charge of Deon’s creation (voiced by Sharlto Copley), christen it Chappie and, in their own questionable ways, teach Chappie how to survive in the criminal underground of Jo’burg, accept his differences and, er, somehow become a moral being and know the difference between right and wrong. In his own way, Deon tries to care for his new child in the way Viktor Frankenstein never did but Chappie becomes conflicted between the easy wealth promised by Ninja (Jones), Yolandi and Amerika (Cantillo) and the life offered by Deon which itself is as empty, meaningless and soul-destroying as that of the punks. At least the punks are able to choose where and how they’ll carry out their big heist.

Meanwhile, back at the Tetravaal ranch, Deon’s co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman) becomes disgruntled that their boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is head over heels in love with Deon’s robot scouts which are paying off handsomely for the company. (Though she’s not keen herself on Deon’s sentient robot scheme – Bradley is only interested in Deon as an inventor of future cash-cows.) After Bradley tells Vincent that she is cutting off funding for his own Moose automated law-and-order project, Vincent – an ex-SAS employee with psychopathic tendencies born of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic fantasies – vows revenge on Deon to the extent that he is willing to sabotage the company’s profits and existence, and next thing you know, both Chappie and Deon are fighting for their lives just as the punks will be fighting for theirs if they can’t pull off their heist with Chappie’s help and pay off Hippo.

The two-hour film simply isn’t a large enough vehicle to deal with the plot as well as the character development, let alone explore its themes and the social context in which Chappie has to learn right from wrong and how to deal with his dysfunctional parents and the local bullies. Chappie’s moral development, which for most humans would take more than a life-time or two (or three …), is collapsed into the space of five days, or however long his battery lasts; unfortunately that of his “parents” is rather slower, at least until near the end where Ninja realises he is losing all his friends to Vincent’s Moose creation. Everything in the movie – the plot, the sub-plots, the characters and the issues that arise – needs more time for a fuller treatment that a linear visual story-telling format cannot provide. The result is a film that, however good it looks, feels very unfinished and in need of at least another six months’ worth of refinement. Characters are as cartoony as can be and Jackman and Weaver hardly raise much sweat as the film’s  potentially more villainous or at least morally ambiguous characters.

The socioeconomic context in which downtrodden corporate worker-bee joins forces with other marginalised people against an enemy that turns out to be another shunned corporate worker-bee – one can sympathise with Vincent’s feelings of rage against his employer – is always present but never questioned or investigated in any meaningful way. One might hope (in one’s dreams) that in a sequel, Chappie can persuade his new family to forgive Vincent and urge him to join them in their struggle to lead a social revolution against the combined forces of corporate and state fascism, represented by Tetravaal and the future South African government.

One worthy message that viewers might come away with is that technological solutions to social problems, be they replacements for human labour (as in Deon’s robot scouts) or drone-operated overkill (as in Vincent’s Moose creation), can create further ethical issues and dilemmas. At least when the robot scouts are disabled by Vincent’s criminal wickedness, Jo’burg’s unemployment problem plunges with 150,000 new jobs – for unemployed human police officers. Other new jobs, such as combing the city’s abandoned outskirts for unexploded cluster bombs or cleaning up the burnt car wrecks and newly made Swiss-cheese buildings left behind by the cartoon violence, are beckoning for willing humans.