Sunday, April 03, 2011

South Africa at AFA: The Burning

To its considerable credit, South Africa averted a bloody revolution with institutionalized score-settling. For his cinematic directorial debut, Stephen Frears adapted a Roland Starke short story subtly speculating about the sort of violent conflict that might have been. However, it initially just seems like any other day to one privileged white youngster and his guardian granny in Frears’ The Burning, which screens during the United We Stand: South African Cinema during Apartheid retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

The little boy is probably not a bad sort, but his grandmother is not particularly “mothering” and the black domestic servants can hardly discipline him. Like every other Thursday, the old woman intends to visit his aunt, as per usual. However, the newspaper never arrived that morning and the radio stations have gone silent. Of course, the regal old woman is hardly interested in news of the outside world anyway, but when they find his Aunt’s home deserted and ransacked, even the boy starts to suspect something might be amiss.

Indeed, the boy learns quite a lesson about his homeland in The Burning. Yet, the irony of the film is that it is not his immediate family who suffer the brunt of this “day of rage,” at least within the thirty minutes of the film. (As for their unwritten future, we can only speculate, grimly.) As a result, Burning stands out in the United We Stand line-up as a particularly bold selection, depicting the brutal injustice that comes with revolution, as well as the inequities of Apartheid.

As a rarely seen film by an accomplished filmmaker, Burning also holds additional appeal to cineastes beyond the scope of the United series. They will not be disappointed. Though it is small in scope, it displays the same sensitivity to character that distinguishes Frears’ later films, like Dirty Pretty Things and The Grifters. Despite the very different contexts, his adept use of the prepubescent boy as an unworldly POV character actually brings to mind Carol Reed’s classic Fallen Idol. Necessarily more than a bit of a snot, Mark Baillie is quite convincing as the little boy. Appropriately though, it is Cosmo Pieterse who really brings a human spark to his role as the unfortunate chauffeur.

For a first film, Burning is quite a mature work, implying volumes while directly showing relatively little. At times it flirts with the surreal, but ultimately this is just a function of its characters headstrong denial. Probably one of the quieter films about violence and injustice, Burning is definitely one of the highlights of AFA’s retrospective look at South African cinema of the Apartheid era. It screens with Sven Persson’s Land Apart this coming Sunday (4/10) and the following Thursday (4/14).