Red Dust (2004)






Director:     Tom Hooper.

Starring:     Jamie Bartlett (Dirk Hendricks), Hilary Swank (Sarah Barcant), Ian Roberts (Piet Müller), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Alex Mpondo), Hlomla Dandala (Oscar Dumasi), James Ngcobo (Ezekiel), Glen Gabela (Themba), Connie Mfuku (Alex's Aunt), Sylvaine Strike (Woman at House), Greg Latter (Mannie Bester), Zaa Nkweta (Reporter), Marius Weyers (Ben Hoffman), Sam Phillips (Elder), Elize Cawood (Anna Hoffman), Nomhle Nkonyeni (Mrs. Sizela).

South African female lawyer Sarah Barcant represents a member of Parliament in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission against his police torturer




Spoiler Warning:

"For almost fifty years a white minority maintained power in South Africa.  The black majority struggled to gain freedom from brutal repression.  In the early nineties, the white government ceded to demands to release Nelson Mandela from prison and agreed to democratic elections.  Government security forces wanted assurance that they would never be prosecuted for human rights' violations they committed enforcing white rule.  But amnesty was only offered to those who publicly confessed all their crimes  -- including torture.  This compromise was reached to help avoid civil war.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to hear these claims for amnesty.  The hearings were the opposite of a criminal court.  If you told the truth about your crimes, you would never be prosecuted for them.  As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission traveled the country, many old wounds were reopened."

2000.  The Great Karoo, South Africa.  [The Great Karoo is a semi-desert natural region that in the early years formed an almost impenetrable barrier to the interior from Cape Town   It is located in the interior, away from the coast, in southwest South Africa.  The Great Escarpment traverses the area from west to east.]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is coming in trucks and other vehicles to a slum area of the Great Karoo.  They carry a white prisoner with them.  The prisoner, named Dirk Hendricks, is let out of the paddy wagon and he says hello to Piet Müller, who says he retired from the police force six years ago, and now runs a small security firm in Smitsrivier.  Dirk says:  "I'm claiming amnesty.  That business with Alex Mpondo."  That was back in 1986, some 14 years ago.  He adds that currently he is serving 18 years in prison for killing Ngoepe.  He has claimed amnesty, but they won't give him amnesty unless he claims for everything else he did as well.  Piet just says that he only wants to make sure that Dirk keeps his name out of his confessions. 

The trucks and other vehicles stop in the local town.  Alex Mpondo gets out to greet his well-wishers.  A lot of the towns people know Mpondo.  It's like a big home coming.

Sarah Barcant stops by a local farm.  She explains to the woman there that she grew up in the home here and she was wondering if she could look around.  She says it was just her and her mother living here.  Sarah goes over to a tree and finds a name carved in the trunk.  She tells the property owner that the carved name is Johnny Naniso, her first boyfriend.  The woman says that people still talk the about the wild Barcant girl who ran around with the blacks.  Sarah tells the lady that she is a lawyer now. 

The news media covers the comments of Dirk's lawyer, Mr. Bester.  "He freely admits that in this police station between the 5th and the 31st of May 1986, he did brutally interrogate Mr. Alex Mpondo.  He understands the need for a full and frank disclosure.  In fact, my client is very sorry for any harm inflicted on Mr. Mpondo, and sincerely apologizes for the wrong done to him."  One of the reporters says that Mr. Mpondo is here to oppose Hendricks' claim.  The reporters also want to know from the lawyer what happened to Steve Sizela?

Sarah goes out to see her old friend Ben, who was the one who asked Sarah to come back from New York to her hometown.  Ben also was the man who took Sarah in when her mother lost custody of her.  He explains to Sarah that Alex at first didn't want to go through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission procedures, but Alex had a friend named Steve Sizela, who was arrested alongside Alex.  Sizela was never seen again.  Ben was the lawyer for Alex and Steve.  He wants Sarah to pressure Hendricks for information about what happened to Steve.

Sarah calls Alex who tells her welcome back.  She sets up a meeting with Alex for the next day.  Piet Müller comes over to the house where Sarah is calling from and asks Sarah if she remembers him?  She know him alright.  He invites her to the party next door, but she says she has work to do. 

The next morning, Sarah meets Alex at the town swimming pool.  They are the only two people at the pool.  Sarah asks him what does he expect from this hearing?  He replies:  "What I'm looking for, Ms. Barcant, is to find out what happened to Steven Sizela, and to block the amnesty of a sadistic bastard."   Sarah says according to her papers, Alex was arrested in Sagiesdorp on May 5, 1986, along with his friend Steven. And Alex was beaten and tortured for 28 days.  Alex says it was 31 days.  He was beaten for 3 days, and tortured from 28 days.  He shows here the scars on his back. 

Alex and Sarah go to visit with the mother of Steven Sizela.  She shows Sarah the last photograph taken of Steven.  Then the father comes in the house to talk to Sarah and Alex.  Father says the real problem here is not Hendricks, but Piet Müller.  He was the captain of security when Steven was detained.  He says the docket is missing.  He finishes with these words for Sarah:  "You get to the truth and let almighty God take care of the reconciliation."

Alex doesn't like Mr. Sizela because he continues to blame Alex for taking Steven away from his studies.  He even calls the father "an unforgiving old bastard". 

The next day Sarah and Alex meet at the dining room of the hotel where Sarah is staying.  He tells her that he found out about her wild days as a youth.  He knows that she was thrown in jail for going with a black boy, Johnny Naniso.  Sarah acknowledges that's true.  She tells him that he's going to have to cross-examine Hendricks.  Alex says he was drugged and beaten and much of his memory of the events with Hendricks are hazy. 

The community turns out for the hearing on Hendricks.  Piet Müller is one of those attending the hearing.  Alex comes in and he and Hendricks stare at each other. 

In the hearing it is acknowledged that Hendricks was convicted in 1992 of the murder of Mr. Ngoepe, while the man was in custody.  Sarah brings up the subject of Steven Sizela who was arrested with Mr. Mpondo.  The chairman of the hearing says they will look into the matter, but for now, they want to focus on Mr. Mpondo.  The blacks in the court don't like that ruling.  They want to know what happened to Mr. Sizela. 

Hendricks says he arrested Mr. Mpondo because he had information that he was involved with the transportation of MK terrorists' weapons from up north.  He then admits that he began interrogating Mr. Mpondo by beating him.  They felt Mr. Mpondo was holding back on information, so they decided to break him.  They placed him on a table and beat him for about an hour.  Then the next day the procedure would be repeated, and so on.  Then they used a canvas bag on Mr. Mpondo.  The canvas bag would be wet with water and would be placed over the prisoner's head.  It gives a sense of drowning.  [This is what's known in the USA as the water torture.]  He says this method was repeated again and again.  And then Mr. Mpondo gave up the information they wanted.  He told them where the arms and ammunition were stored.  In anger Alex pounds the desk top when he hears this.  His lawyer says her client will refute those allegations of giving up information under torture during his cross-examination of Mr. Hendricks. 

Hendricks says he was diagnosed with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).  One of the symptoms is nightmares.  At this, Alex pounds on the desk and starts walking out of the hearing.  Outside, Alex vomits. 

Alex goes to the swimming pool.  Sarah goes there to tell him that Ben wants to speak with Alex. 

Alex tells Ben that this price he has to pay is too high.  Ben encourages him to go back to the hearing.  Sarah is waiting outside for Alex.  He comes out and says he's going to find something that will prove that he did not talk under torture.  He gets in his car and leaves.  Sarah goes back to the hearing.  The chairman tells Sarah that she has not shown any evidence that Mr. Sizela's disappearance is related to Mr. Hendricks.  So they will not take up the issue in this hearing.  The chairman suggests to Hendricks that he meet with Ms. Barcant to answer any questions she may have about Mr. Sizela.  Mr. Bester speaks with Hendricks and then tells the chairman that Mr. Hendricks will speak with Ms. Barcant. 

Hendricks does speak with Sarah, but he gives her no help at all with what might have happened to Steven Sizela.  All he does is threatened her that he will spill all the beans on Alex because the prisoner gave them everything they wanted to know and then some.  In fact, Alex snitched on his friend Steven.  Hendricks also says that he doesn't want to be responsible for killing Mr. Mpondo's chances at having a political career. 

Sarah goes over to Ben's house for dinner.  He is not in very good health and his wife worries about him.  Ben tries to encourage Sarah to stay in South Africa and work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  He says the country is coming apart, and the Commission is doing a good job of bringing the country back together.  Sarah says she doesn't have the same faith that Ben has in his belief in the Commission .   She also says that Alex is a lot more damaged psychologically than Ben first let on. 

At night Sarah bumps into Piet Müller and has to listen to his complaints about her.  He says one of his men will walk her back to her hotel.  She says it's just a block away and she can walk it by herself.  She starts walking away from Piet. 

Alex digs up a small tin box. 

Alex meets with Sarah at the hotel for breakfast.  He shows Sarah the small tin box that he dug up last night.  He says this tin contains Steve's last letter to him.  He hasn't opened the tin box yet because it is rusted shut.  But it will show that neither he nor Steve told Hendricks about their communication system of planting and picking up information in the tin box.  Sarah tells him to open the box because they have to know for sure what's in the letter before they go to the hearing.   Now Sarah tells Alex that Hendricks says Alex denounced Steve.  Alex admits that under torture, he did denounce Steve, because he just wanted the torture to stop.  Sarah urges him to tell the Commission before Hendricks tells them.  And now Alex manages to open up the tin box.  Inside is a piece of paper.

At the hearing, Alex presents the tin box containing a letter from Sizela with the names of the volunteers on it.  The chairman reads the names out loud.   Some of the men on the list have been killed or died, but quite a few stood up in the audience when their names were called out.  And now Alex acknowledges that Steven was a member of the military wing of the African National Congress.  The information is slow to come out, so Hendricks says that during interrogation Alex said that Steven was a member of the military wing.   Now Alex asks Hendricks:  "And that sealed his fate?"   Hendricks says yes.  That creates quite a stir among the blacks in the audience.  Some of the people call Alex a traitor. 

When they come back from a break, Alex continues the cross-examination of Hendricks.  He says Hendricks has said that Alex raised up his arm and pointed at Steven, but he (Alex) was in no condition to even raise a finger.  It was Hendricks himself who raised up his (Alex's) arm and pointed it at Steven.  And then someone in the room said:  "For God's sake, identify him!"  That person is in the hall today and he wants Hendricks to point the man out.  Hendricks won't do it, so Alex grabs Hendricks' arm and finger and points it at Piet Müller.  Again the crowd erupts into pandemonium.  A lunch break is announced.  Alex sits down next to Sarah and tells her:  "I had no memory of Müller bringing Steve in until just now."  So Alex is not a traitor. 

Piet Müller tells Mr. Bester to remind Hendricks just who was the last person to see Sizela. 

After lunch Sarah gets Hendricks to say that the interrogation took place at a farm.  It was Ryder's Farm.  And the body of Steve was buried at the farm. Now the chairman says they will meet tomorrow at Ryder's Farm. 

Alex tells Sarah that they need to go out to the farm tonight. 

One of the boys tells Alex that his uncle has been saying bad things about him.  He said that Alex is a disgrace to the ANC.  Alex gets so mad that he goes after the uncle and manhandles him.  He then pushes the man's head under water in a sink and repeats the process.  He reminds the uncle that his name was one of the names of the volunteers, but uncle was never subjected to torture, because he (Alex) and Steve never talked.  He throws the man down on the ground. 

Sarah drives Alex out to Ryder's farm.  He tells Sarah that he became the torturer (of himself) a long time ago.  And now back at the farm Alex remembers more of what happened.  Piet Müller brought Steven into the cell at the farm with Steve's neck already broken.  Steven was just barely alive and it was Piet who was responsible for the death of Steven.  But it's Hendricks who has to clean up Müller's mess.

Alex tells Sarah:  "All of these years, I thought I had killed him.  But he was as good as dead already."

And now Piet Müller arrives at the farm.  He says he's here because this is one of the properties his security firm watches over.  He incriminates himself while talking by saying that they will never connect him with Steven's murder because the boy was still alive when he left Steven behind with Hendricks. 

In the morning the police start looking for buried bodies at Ryder's Farm.  Hendricks tells Alex that he actually saved Alex's life.  He stretched out the time that Alex had by dragging out the torture and that's what saved Alex.  And now Hendricks tells Alex that he buried Steven five meters from the sheep bin on the line to the house.  He tells Alex:  "I'm sorry.  So fucking sorry."

The police dig up the grave.  They find a piece of jewelry and show it to Mrs. Sizela.  She recognizes the jewelry and starts crying.  She walks away toward the site of the grave and sees her son's bones being placed on a sheet of rubber or plastic. 

And Hendricks gets some revenge on Piet Müller because he threw in the paper work on Steven into a sealable clear container and buried it with Steve's body.  Piet Müller's name is all over that document. 

The police arrive to arrest Piet Müller

Back at the hearing, Sarah announces that her client is now withdrawing his objection to amnesty for Hendricks.  Hendrick's claim for amnesty is granted by the three judges.  Hendricks thanks Alex. 

And now Piet Müller applies for amnesty. 

Sarah tells Ben that she's going back to New York.

Steven's parents forgive Alex. 

Sarah says goodbye to Alex.  She says to Alex that what happened to her can't even compare to what happened to him, but what happened to her was still something bad too.  Alex tells her the he knows that.  He adds:  "We have the right to say that it hurt."  They hug each other. 


"Having looked the beast in the eye,

having asked and received forgiveness,

let us shut the door on the past,

not to forget it,

but to allow it not to imprison us."

------            Archbishop Tutu



An interesting story about how the South African police used torture to fight to keep the blacks down in South Africa.  It's a nasty story, indeed.  A torturer and murderer named Hendricks wants amnesty for his crimes by telling the whole truth about all the crimes he committed while working with the police.  He is opposed by a black man named Alex who Hendricks beat and tortured for some 31 days.  Alex is only appearing at the hearing because he wants to get Hendricks to tell the hearing what happened to his friend Steven Sizela and where is his body buried.  As a man under torture, much of Alex's remembrances are hazy at best and this weakens the possibilities of Alex being able to trip up Hendricks during cross-examination.  Alex is also hampered by guilt feelings that he might have denounced Steven.  He's just not sure what happened.  This sets up an interesting court room drama of confrontation between torturer and tortured.  Alex has a lawyer, Sarah, who grew up in the small town where the crimes took place, but then she escaped by moving to the United States.  She became a New York City criminal lawyer.  So Sarah and Alex both have been victims of the South African system of apartheid.  Good movie with some twists.  I enjoyed it. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.




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