South Africa's lesson for post-apartheid Australia


Disgrace: 120 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Steve Jacobs. Starring: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines

John Malcovich, DisgraceAnimal lovers will find Disgrace hard going. Dogs feature prominently, and suffer all manner of violence, both cruel and kind. Some are slaughtered senselessly by rogues. Others are euthanased with tenderness by those who see no better future for them.

Humanitarians will find it tough going, too. As in the J M Coetzee novel on which the film is based, the treatment of dogs stands as a kind of inbuilt, brutal fable reflecting the plight of human beings. Disgrace is a film about the shifting nature and misuse of power in post-apartheid South Africa. It paints a confronting picture.

The narrative circles around two occasions of physical assault. The first entails the abuse by a poetry professor, David Lurie (Malkovich), of one of his students (Antoinette Engel) at a Cape Town university.

David is an ageing, malevolent Lothario, all too aware that his position of authority does all the work that seduction would otherwise do — the misuse of power in sexual relationships need not entail physical force. Later, after the relationship is exposed, David appeals to the primacy of desire to justify the damage he has done to his victim.

The second assault takes place after David, disgraced and banished from the university, arrives at the remote farm where his daughter Lucy (Haines) lives and works as a market gardener. Here, in the wild lands of the eastern Cape, David experiences powerlessness: he and Lucy are badly beaten by a gang of black youths. Lucy is gang raped.

David draws a dubious moral distinction between this shocking act and his own misdeeds. He is indignant. The attack becomes a point of tension between him and his daughter. Lucy refuses to talk about it with him, or to take legal action against the perpetrators.

Disgrace portrays a society where power has shifted, and where the citizens have yet to adjust. Apartheid has ended, but racism has not. Equality is still a theory. The characters' world has changed, and while the more pragmatic Lucy struggles to accept and understand the change, David rages against it. He is angry and afraid.

It's a confronting film, but not preachy. It has an almost poetic quality, and ends on an uplifting note. The cinematographer's attention to the textures and colours of the South African landscapes suggests that there is beauty to be found in this story, as well as much ugliness.

Malkovich is captivating. Coetzee's Lurie is a difficult character to like, yet Malcovich finds depths of humanity amid his many foibles. He loves his daughter and, despite his womanising ways, cultivates genuine affection for Bev (Fiona Press), a middle-aged woman for whom he works at an animal welfare clinic.

Interestingly, Disgrace, an Australian co-production, also has an Australian director and producer in Jacobs. Indeed there is a mirror for Australia in the film. White Australia is guilty of its own brand of apartheid, and we, despite the best wishes and actions of many, are yet to resolve the injustices that have resulted.

Disgrace reminds us that reconciliation is more than words. There are challenges both internal and external that must be confronted, and power imbalances to be redressed. Much fear and anger have yet to be overcome.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Tim kroenert, disgrace, J. M. Coetzee, Steve Jacobs, John Malkovich, Lucy Haines



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Existing comments

Disgrace sets out to challenge traditional concepts of power and intimacy. The test of the film adaptation is whether john malkovich is convincing or a parody of his malevolent role in dangerous liaisons all those years ago.

cindy | 18 June 2009  

Congratulations on the review. I had a sabbatical from ACU Natonal in 1995 and taught at Rhodes University for one semester. On my first train trip from Rochester to the City I thought I would ride with the Black people in the last two cariages of the train which during the apartheid period Black people travelled. Nelson Mandela was appointed the President just before I arrived thre. However the Marist Brothers with whom I was staying told me never to go in those carriages again.No reasons were given. This was my first introduction to the post apartheid period.

However for the rest of my time there I did not feel threatened but the Brothers told me to keep my bedroom windows closed at night. So the government had changed(ANC) but I soon realised it would take a long time to dismantle the apartheid system.

stan cusack | 18 June 2009  

'Disgrace' is a book whose multi-layered meanings still linger.
I'm relieved to hear that the movie version lives up to the challenges of its progenitor.

The scary thing about the book (and now its offspring) is what disturbing messages it whispers in our ears. I'm looking forward to the movie like a trip to the dentist. Will the drill hurt too much?

john bartlett | 18 June 2009  

This is a balanced & well written review, drawing parralels both from within the movie and to our own society. The plot,characters & photography are briefly covered, leaving the reader of the review knowing that this is an important film, not to be missed.

"Amy Patricia" | 18 June 2009  

By some quirk of fate (not faith), I had just returned 'Disgrace' to the Library, the day before I saw a film review.I wondered if JM Coetzee regrets not having his profesor play the banjo! All I can really say is 'please send the tickets!!'

peter h | 18 June 2009  

This review makes the movie Disgrace sound harrowing but compelling. Post-apartheid South Africa promised a change that was perhaps impossible to achieve in 1 generation. Yet films and books that examine their progress towards reconciliation and struggle with deep-seated racial bias help others consider creative solutions. Certainly we in Australia need to continually consider ideas around the acknowledging and elimination of racial injustice.

I would very much like to see this film.

marie elizabeth | 18 June 2009  

Very challenging review.Do not want to see this movie, as I don't want to see violence.This review brought up a lot of emotions, and really gave an in depth sensitive account of film. It is making me ask, 'why don't I want to see it?' Am I frightened to face the real world?
It is much more comfortable to be warm, and stay in my usual surroundings.

Perhaps I can draw a parallel, between my emotions and some attitudes toward the sexual abuse in the church. Is it better to keep it hidden because it is so nasty, and evil?, No things will never change if we don't allow ourselves to be challenged and to be upset.
It is very easy to criticise other cultures on their lack of social justice. It is not so pleasant to look at ourselves in that respect.
Thanks for the review. I do admire those who attend such films. I would like to be one of them.

Bernie | 18 June 2009  

It's so easy to sit back in an armchair and see clearly what's "wrong" with the world and to say, "If only they..."! Real reconciliation can only begin when I discover that truly, "The Kingdom of God is within." In discovering this and allowing the God in me to encounter the God in each other, perhaps there is hope for the emergence of a level playing field where mutual respect, reconciliation and love can build a just future for all.

Libbey Byrne | 22 June 2009  

When I heard that Disgrace was being made into a film I hoped an excellent filmmaker got their hands on the story. For me, the power of the book was the subtle emotional and relationship shifts that occurred around big events, not the big events themselves. Film does tend to focus on big events, so I was a little worried.

This review suggests that maybe they got it right after all. I found the violence against animals very hard to read, I am sure it will be harder to watch. But maybe the beauty of the landscape creates a kind of balance. I have never been to South Africa and for me the book conjured up a harsh landscape to fit the personalities and events. I am curious to see what a beautiful backdrop will do to this story.

Kathryn O'Connor | 22 June 2009  

It will be hard to watch the film after reading this excellent review. Reading the book was enough of an emotional rollercoaster for me and, when you are reading if the tension gets too much you can put the book down and take a walk.

As an Australian who has worked in Southern Africa as well as in Australia my opinion is that this is clearly a film that we all should see.
As the review reminds us reconciliation is more than words and is a long ongoing process. The intersection of power, race and class leaves deep but often hidden scars in national psyches, as well as in the historical memories of all excolonial societies. It reminds us, in the words of the former editor of "Africa South", Ronnie Segal, that reconciliation and the building of a new society is always a "Struggle Against History".

As Australians of the present generation with the responsibilities for change we need to face this reality squarely. The opportunity to see it played out in A South African setting in the film Disgrace is probable a good plaace to start. The review warns us of what we need to face.

Sam Symons | 22 June 2009  

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