Friday, April 08, 2011

South Africa at AFA: Katrina

Consider it the South African equivalent of Night of the Quarter Moon, the camp classic which featured a supposedly bi-racial Julie London passing for white. Of course, skin pigment was always of paramount importance in Apartheid-era South Africa, with the mixed race population (so-called “coloureds”) having somewhat different legal status than blacks and whites. Separate not being equal, many tried to pass for white, like the title character of Jans Rautenbach’s Katrina, which screens during the United We Stand: South African Cinema during Apartheid retrospective currently underway at the Anthology Film Archives.

Catherine Winters’ son will soon return from medical school in London. She would like to see him go back, for reasons she has difficulty explaining. The recently reassigned Anglican Father Alec Trevellan assiduously courts her, but again she is at a loss for words when he proposes. The truth is pretty simple, but definitely heavy. She is actually Katrina September, a bi-racial woman from a hardscrabble provincial village. Only one man knows the truth, her brother Adam September, a mercurial advocate of self-sufficiency and empowerment for his people, who holds little love for the anti-Apartheid revolutionaries.

Despite the hot-buttons racial issues, the film seems to share frère September’s disinterest in politics. Aside from his testy exchange with a Tutu like activist, the subject of Apartheid is never broached. Yet the hyper-racial environment is inescapable. Indeed, it is what drives Katrina’s drama.

Like Julie London, the Ali MacGraw-looking Jill Kirkland was also a singer, who scored a medium-sized hit with Katrina’s theme song. Not only does she look right in the part, she projects the perfect brittle vulnerability. Joe Stewardson also handles Trevellan’s angst-binges relatively convincingly, but it is Don Leonard who supplies the film’s heart as Kimberly Jacobs, a sort of unofficial “community organizer” from Winters/September’s former village. While he initially appears somewhat buffoonish, the slow revelation of his character’s depth and pain really gives the film its poignancy.

Released in 1969, Katrina has that garish 1970’s-era color that (so appropriately in this case) plays havoc with skin tones. Indeed, Leonards’ Jacobs looks whiter than this year’s Academy Awards. Yet, that underscores the arbitrary nature of such concerns.

Essentially, Katrina is an unrepentant melodrama with a social issue angle to give it added snob appeal. Though necessarily tragic, it is arguably the most entertaining film of the United We Stand retrospective, in an old-fashioned popcorn kind of way. A tricky film to pigeon-hole but definitely well worth seeing, Katrina screens this Saturday (4/9) and Wednesday (4/13) at Anthology Film Archives.