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Theresa Smith

Haunting more because of what it doesn’t say than what it does show, Free State is a beautifully filmed romantic drama.

Set in the late ’70s, it tells the tale of an inter-racial relationship in the Orange Free State, but as nasty as the story turns out, you are absolutely seduced by how idyllic the place looks.

In the doomed love affair we get a sharp reminder of just how apartheid destroyed lives and it does make me wonder what writer and director, De Jager, could do if he adapted Zakes Mda’s Madonna of Excelsior.

The couple at the heart of this story, though, are white Wits law student Jeanette (Breytenbach) and Ravi (Govender, pictured), an Indian man who gives her a lift. She is returning home to the dorpie of Memel in the South African heartland, where Indian people are called “coolies” and not allowed on the street after sunset.

While her NG dominee father, Gideon Nolte (Lotz), is just so happy to see his daughter safely home, the local beat cop is not as impressed and has no problems expressing his disdain. The film is peppered with these ugly moments – everyday scenes of the extremely uneven power dynamic across racial lines expressed as casual racism.

When Jeanette tries to thanks Ravi for his kindness, her visit sparks a relationship both sets of parents warn them about but, well, it wouldn’t be a star-crossed lovers kind of story if they ...

Haunting more because of what it doesn’t say than what it does show, Free State is a beautifully filmed romantic drama.

Set in the late ’70s, it tells the tale of an inter-racial relationship in the Orange Free State, but as nasty as the story turns out, you are absolutely seduced by how idyllic the place looks.

In the doomed love affair we get a sharp reminder of just how apartheid destroyed lives and it does make me wonder what writer and director, De Jager, could do if he adapted Zakes Mda’s Madonna of Excelsior.

The couple at the heart of this story, though, are white Wits law student Jeanette (Breytenbach) and Ravi (Govender, pictured), an Indian man who gives her a lift. She is returning home to the dorpie of Memel in the South African heartland, where Indian people are called “coolies” and not allowed on the street after sunset.

While her NG dominee father, Gideon Nolte (Lotz), is just so happy to see his daughter safely home, the local beat cop is not as impressed and has no problems expressing his disdain. The film is peppered with these ugly moments – everyday scenes of the extremely uneven power dynamic across racial lines expressed as casual racism.

When Jeanette tries to thanks Ravi for his kindness, her visit sparks a relationship both sets of parents warn them about but, well, it wouldn’t be a star-crossed lovers kind of story if they listen to the older folk.

Beautiful as they are, the inexperience of the two leads does hamper the storytelling somewhat. Breytenbach provides the Jeanette character’s emotions via an irksome narration, while Govender more often than not strikes a pose when he doesn’t quite know how to show what he is meant to feel.

The supporting cast more than make up for it, though, plus the technical aspects like art direction, set design and costumes create a lived-in feel. The family lives of three families are richly detailed, giving us a glimpse into religious cultures that aren’t often afforded screen time locally and this is very much a story of fathers and their children.

Ravi’s impending engagement to a local Indian girl, Anusha (Suraya-Rose Santos), puts a spotlight on the Indian caste system and arranged marriages in ’70s South Africa. Every time Ravi voices reservations about how his life is being constrained, his father quotes Ghandi, his failsafe for any problem out of the ordinary.

Anusha’s father, Animesh (Desai), is stuck between a rock and a hard place, needing to provide for a daughter left on the shelf too long.

Lotz gives a subtle turn as Jeanette’s dominee dad, Gideon. Lotz could so easily have turned this into a fire and brimstone character, but instead gives Gideon insecurities to deal with in a very understated manner. The only way Gideon was able to cope with the death of his wife was to shut off all emotions and any effort on his part to now connect with his grown-up daughter is fraught by unresolved tension.

Khumalo is a delicate presence as Maria, the family maid who has raised Jeanette, who has to watch her charge’s life implode.

The film shows how the families are ripped apart by the forbidden relationship and how the parents’ problem was never who their children chose, but everything that choice would lead to.

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