South African film lays bare capital punishment trauma

Broadcast

Award-winning South African film Shepherds and Butchers is to premiere in South Africa "around September", says producer Anant Singh.

Shepherds and Butchers, an adaptation of a novel by South African lawyer-turned-author Chris Marnewick, was placed third in the Panorama Audience Award for Fiction Films at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month. That is a first for a South African film.

Director Oliver Schmitz said it was "most gratifying to win an audience award at a prestigious festival like the Berlinale. Film festival audiences are tough and discerning, but they were with the film all the way".

Schmitz is a South African who has won several film awards and whose Life, Above All was selected as the South African entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards.

Shepherds and Butchers stars Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee, Steve Coogan, English actress Andrea Riseborough and South African newcomer Garion Dowds, as well South African actors including Deon Lotz, Robert Hobbs and Eduan van Jaarsveldt. It tells the story of Leon Labuschagne (Dowds), a nineteen-year-old death row warder at Pretoria’s Maximum Security Prison, "a shepherd who cares for the condemned — and a butcher who escorts them to the gallows".

Based on fact, the story unfolds as Labuschagne, in the summer of 1987, loses control after 32 men are hanged in two weeks. The hangings are real life cases, Labuschange’s facing the death penalty after killing seven people is fiction.

"It’s a complex book," says Singh. He says it was difficult to "extract" a screenplay from it. This was done by Brian Cox. "We bought the rights to the book around 10 years ago. It took a long time to put the whole package together. Getting the script right was our biggest challenge."

Reviews have been enthusiastic. Show business daily Variety said, "Oliver Schmitz, one of SA’s essential directors, delivers emotional acuity" while Screen Daily said, "What stands out … is its dramatic core" and the UK’s Guardian said, the film was "visualised in some style … a forthright antideath penalty message’.

Schmitz says filming Shepherds and Butchers was challenging. "The subject is very harrowing. I am telling what happens in the process of hanging, to the executed and the executioners. Filming leads to obsessiveness, of repetition, of attention to detail, of hyper sensitivity to the subject you are examining. Its brought back all the feelings of living through the South Africa of those times, inherently violent times."

On top of that, he sought not to be "polemical about the death penalty and not to get sanctimonious with easy answers about right and wrong, good and bad".

"The story only works where it leads to complexity and the tough thing was to keep that in focus," says Schmitz. "To keep an audience interested in a young white boy who killed seven black men in cold blood, to shun his deeds but not to shun the human being he could have been had he not been raised and nurtured on violence. The same goes for the liberal lawyer defending him. Does he become complicit by defending such a man, is the victory for getting the killer off the death sentence (and hence a victory for abolitionism) also a victory for race motivated killings at the time?"

South Africa banned capital punishment in 1995. In 1987, the year in which the film is set, 164 people were hanged in the country. The last execution carried out by the South African government was the hanging of Solomon Ngobeni in November 1989. By that time more than 4,000 people had been hanged in Pretoria that century, the overwhelming number of them black. The country remains violent.

Music for the film is composed by Paul Hepker, and Bee Gees co-founder Barry Gibb composed a song, Angels, especially for the film. It is performed by Gibb and South African musician Vusi Mahlasela.
Source: BDLive 24 February 2016