It has recently been announced that Roland Joffe, (Londoner and) director of films The Mission and The Killing Fields has cast Forest Whitaker to play Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his upcoming film. In an adaptation of Michael Ashton’s play inspired by the events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the film — titled The Archbishop and the Antichrist — imagines a meeting between Tutu and ‘boorish white mass murderer’ Piet Blomfeld. Shadow and Act blog did some digging and found this synopsis of the play, which points toward somewhat banal complications of the TRC already addressed in a variety of other films, such as the questioning of rehabilitative justice instead of punitive justice, the subjective notion of ‘truth’, and redemption and reconciliation for whom exactly?

The casting of Whitaker is interesting, especially since his performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. He’s not intimidated by well known historical figures; but the impish, slight figure of Tutu seems to be a far cry from Whitaker’s usually powerful and pumped characters; the enigmatic Ghost Dog in the eponymous film (1999), Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006), or Jake in Repo Men (2010).

Films dealing with the TRC often get caught up in self-aware complications of the central notions that plagued the commission. From the synopsis on Shadow and Act, it seems that Joffe will follow in the not-so-subtle footsteps of films such as In My Country, a film by John Boorman based (very vaguely) on Antjie Krog’s book Country of My Skull; a beautiful, poetic and complicated account of her time working for SABC radio, which is unfortunately Hollywood-ised beyond recognition by the film. Binoche as Krog is a stilted, confused performance; her French accent is off-putting, and the unbelievable exchanges on morality and redemption with co-star Samuel L Jackson as a picky American reporter are misplaced and crude. Similarly, Red Dust (2004), by Tom Hooper starring Hilary Swank, Jamie Bartlett and Chiwetel Ejiofor is a predictable, bland portrayal of the TRC.

It is the more oblique, sideways glances at the TRC that seem to better understand its endless nature; the multiple truths and effects that it produced in ‘the new’ South Africa. Ramadan Suleman’s film Zulu Love Letter (2004) is a brilliant examination of truth, speechlessness, and a haunting political past. Using surreal sequences to depict the protagonist, Thandi’s (Pamela Nomvete Marimbe) sense of isolation from the present, and, from the past, Suleman portrays her as suspended within post-Apartheid society, unable to reconcile the past, and unable to move forward into the ‘new’ South Africa. The TRC forms the suggestive moral backdrop of the film, and benefits from this approach. This is similarly approached in Ubuntu’s Wounds (2002), a short film by Sechaba Morojele that complicates ideas of revenge, redemption and reality. What is brilliant about this film is that it mirrors the way most South Africans would have encountered the TRC, on television; the protagonist, Lebo, is traumatized by his wife’s murder, and while watching her killers disclosure at the TRC on a television in LA, the film dissolves the multiple fronts of the TRC; television, testimony and witness are boiled down into one raging human being, unable to escape apartheid’s ghosts.

I fear the worst for Joffe’s new film, but I’ll readily be surprised by Whitaker as a convincing Tutu. As past films testify, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — although it possesses all the intrigue, power and excitement of a courtroom-style drama like 12 Angry Men — has invariably been sensationalised into a showcase of trauma-as-entertainment. We’ll have to wait and see how this one turns out…