Red Dust

(Tom Hooper, UK/South Africa, 2004)


At the age of 90, French philosopher Paul Ricoeur launched a surprisingly virulent attack against the practice of political amnesty. "Amnesty is organised forgetting," he said. "It has nothing to do with the pacification that forgiveness can bring. It is public, commanded, and has therefore nothing to do with a personal act of compassion. Amnesty does wrong at once to truth, thereby repressed and as if forbidden, and to justice as it is due to the victims."

Ricoeur did not live to see Tom Hooper's Red Dust, but if he had it would not have made him happy. A drama about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it gets stuck between the uncovering of a terrible truth and the pressure to dole out reconciliation at any price.

Rather deviously, the film sets out with its hero, Alex (Chiwetel Ejiofor), opposing the amnesty for which his former torturer, Hendriks (Jamie Bartlett), asks in return for the confession of his actions during the apartheid era. A great deal of the story is devoted to the fairly underwhelming "dark secret" which Alex tries to keep hidden during these proceedings.

Red Dust suffers greatly by comparison with another recent film The Constant Gardener (2005). Where Fernando Meirelles and his collaborators superbly weave politics, romance and action into a fast-moving narrative, Red Dust (despite the contribution of veteran writer Troy Kennedy Martin) quickly bogs down into a television-style courtroom drama. Long dialogue scenes are punctuated by leaden flashbacks, and the growing rapport between Alex and his hotshot lawyer, Sarah (Hilary Swank), counts for little.

But what is most irritating about the film is its compulsive need to push the plot towards a wishy-washy ideology of forgiveness, as if this represented the pinnacle of political maturity in our convulsive modern world. This may make for a feel good vibe, but it certainly short changes the complexity of the ethical issues raised.

© Adrian Martin November 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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