For most Americans, their knowledge about South Africa starts and stops with Nelson Mandela’s fight to end the country’s racist, colonial policies of apartheid which repressed the nation’s indigenous black majority for the benefit of the minority white, Afrikaans population. Writer/director Etienne Kallos’ powerfully understated film takes a different direction by telling the story of an Afrikaans family living in South Africa’s Free State region, an isolated white stronghold, in the waning days of apartheid. As the long-entrenched power structure of the nation is fracturing in the 1990s, the deeply religious family at the center of the films also begins falling apart at the seams, precipitated when they bring an addicted, street kid into their home who soon begins exposing long submerged secrets and lies.
“…an Afrikaans family living in South Africa’s Free State region, an isolated white stronghold, in the waning days of apartheid.”
As the film opens, a young man in short pants is seen herding cattle in an unfamiliar landscape. Janno, as he is known, is the eldest son of a devout ranching family in a whites-only region of South Africa. Speaking in Afrikaans, Janno works the farm, hangs out with his mates, and worships with his family. In an act that is a mixture of kindness, religious zealotry, and pure ethnic nationalism, Janno’s mother brings Pieter – an orphan who had been living on the streets of a neighboring town – into their home. “There are so few of us left. Afrikaners,” she says. “God sent him. Brought him into our house.”
Suffering from drug withdrawal, Pieter soon begins upending the family’s holier-than-thou dynamic. He smokes, refuses to worship and calls out the family’s religious hypocrisy (“At least I know who I am,” he tells Janno). Most jarringly, he begins competing for the attention of goody two shoes Janno’s friends and family while “leading him into sin” by introducing him to the earthly pleasures of music, booze, and the like at a racially integrated nearby township. Like a horse that cannot be broken, Pieter’s would-be parents send him to “man camp” where he can finally cast off the evils that bedevil him. “I can’t save him without you,” Janno’s mother tells him. Pieter returns to the farm, apparently cowed by his experience at the camp but in reality simply having learned to subvert his true feelings even more. Soon enough, though, Pieter exposes hidden truths about his new “family” that lead Janno to question the very foundation of his reality and faith.
“…richly rewarded by the subtle ways Kallos employs allegory and allusion to powerfully comment upon the shifting nature of sexuality, truth, and faith…”
With almost no music and spare dialogue, The Harvesters is a slow burn of a film that will test the patience of many a viewer. At one point, I was ready to throw in the towel myself, exasperated by the seemingly blind religiosity of the community as the walls of the family and the political system was, both metaphorically and realistically, crumbling before our eyes. But those who stick with this film, are richly rewarded by the subtle ways Kallos employs allegory and allusion to powerfully comment upon the shifting nature of sexuality, truth, and faith in a nation constructed atop racism and lies. In particular, a brief scene with the family’s seemingly senile grandfather is, in hindsight, powerful and chilling. The performances throughout are superb, with both the work by actors playing Pieter and the mother turning in bravura performances. It’s also gorgeously shot, with the cinematographer using the dusty landscape and hazy natural light to great effect.
One of the best measures of a film is its resonance, its ability to stick with you long after you have left the theater or turned off your screen. By that measure, The Harvesters is a resounding success. It is in many ways a disquieting film experience with characters that are at times difficult, duplicitous, and downright unlikable. But it is a film that sneaks up and then sticks with you, making you question your suppositions of what constitutes “good character,” family, and truth.
The Harvesters (2018) Written and Directed by Etienne Kallos. Starring Danny Keogh, Benré Labuschagne, Alex van Dyk, Juliana Venter, Brent Vermeulen, Morné Visser. The Harvesters screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
8 out of 10 stars