In the early scenes of A World Apart, a 13-year-old girl in Johannesburg in 1963 witnesses a black man run over on the street, and the uncaring reaction of the white passers-by. To smooth over the distress, her mother offers to buy her a new hairdo.
By the time the movie is over, such a benign response is impossible. The little girl (played by newcomer Jodhi May) is the daughter of a liberal journalist (Barbara Hershey) who opposes apartheid, but prefers to keep her activism away from her three daughters. When the mother is thrown into jail, under the pernicious 90-day detention act (under which a person might be held in prison for 90 days without being formally charged), the daughter becomes slowly radicalized, despite having been kept in the dark for most of her life.
A World Apart follows Richard Attenborough’s well-intentioned Cry Freedom as a mass-market condemnation of apartheid, and like that unsuccessful film it tells its story through the eyes of the white people who opposed the system, not the blacks. But A World Apart eschews the grand-gesture theatrics of Attenborough’s film and opts for the intensely personal story of the young girl.
She’s wonderfully drawn and acted. There’s no attempt to endow her with any special brilliance. She’s simply a gawky, giggly adolescent. When she tags along when her mother covers a strike, one of the black workers asks her, “You come to march with us?” She looks up innocently and says, “I can’t, I have to go to school.”
The girl knows that something is wrong when her father (Jeroen Krabbe), also an activist, leaves in the middle of the night and soon the other girls at school are whispering about her.
What makes all of this so effective is the authenticity of the story. Shawn Slovo, the screenwriter, was in fact a little girl in South Africa whose parents were arrested. Her mother, Ruth First, upon whom the Barbara Hershey character is based, was harassed by the authorities and eventually assassinated in 1983.
Slovo’s script, then, is clearly the real thing. Not just in the errant details of time and place (such as the inane cheerfulness of Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” a hit at the time), but in the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. The girl, naturally enough, thinks of herself first, and wonders why the mother has time for causes but not for her daughters. The mother herself is troubled by this, and her jail interrogator (David Suchet) taunts her by saying that her “Joan of Arc thing” is “just an excuse for being a terrible mother.”
A World Apart is directed by Chris Menges, the British cinematographer who has photographed some of the best-looking movies of recent years (he won Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission). This is Menges’ first feature job as director, and while the film is effective in its way, there is a certain stiffness and awkwardness about Menges’ work that doesn’t quite make the material sing in the way that it should.
A World Apart won the Special Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and also won there for best actress, a prize shared by Barbara Hershey, Jodhi May, and Linda Mvusi, who plays the family housekeeper.
First published in The Herald, July 15, 1988
Mvusi’s sole screen credit; is she the only person to win an acting award at Cannes for her only film? Jodhi May appeared in The Last of the Mohicans a couple of years after this, and has gone on to a busy career. Hans Zimmer did the music. Menges directed a few more movies and then went back to being a cinematographer, a job at which he is superb.