Film Review: SHEPHERDS AND BUTCHERS (South Africa 2016) ***

shepherds_and_butches.jpgDirected by Oliver Schmitz

Writers: Chris Marnewick (novel), Brian Cox (adaptation)
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Steve Coogan, Garion Dowds

Review by Gilbert Seah

Director Olive Schmitz has made quite a name for himself with his first feature MAPANTSULA (1988) debuting at Cannes in Un Certain regard and again with his LIFE, ABOVE ALL (2010) being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. His latest is again a film which deals with a controversial topic, inspired by true events, the trial of a prison guard who shot seven black men dead.

The film is set during the height of apartheid in South Africa. The racial prejudice is obviously expected to be an effect on the story. A young white prison guard, Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds) embarks on a seemingly motiveless shooting spree that leaves seven black men dead., one night during a traffic incident. But this is obviously something deeper than road rage. A British-born lawyer, Johan Webber (Steve Coogan), assigned to his case sets out to prove his actions were a direct result of psychological trauma from his volatile work environment.

It is an odd choice to cast Steve Coogan in the role of a concerned lawyer. His best roles have been in comedy as in THE TRIP and THE TRIP TO ITALY as well as in ALAN PARTRIDGE. Even in his serious roles like PHILOMENA, he injects a sarcastic, biting humour that makes him an actor a joy to watch. In this film, Coogan is total serious. He is seen smoking a cigarette during the planning of his case, but never gain in any other seen. Actor Garion Dowds was probably chosen for his role as the accused because of his innocent and small stature, showing his character a vulnerable and easily influenced one.

One expects to be disturbed when watching a film like SHEPHERDS AND BUTCHERS that deals with the death penalty. There is plenty in the film to shock the audience. These are mainly in the flashbacks and recalling of events by guard Leon Labuschagne. The description of a hanging with the rope not of correct length (the dying man suffering the pain of strangulation with a broken neck in consciousness for a full 15 minutes) and the actual enactment during a flashback are clearly not for the faint-hearted. The scenes showing the sights of the faeces and urine surrounding the dead hung bodies are also plain nasty. Director Schmitz also creates the uneasiness of the period of apartheid throughout the film.

Leon Labuschagne was a prefect at school and attended church regularly. He was a father with a wife and daughter but now he stands trial for the murder of 7 people. The most intriguing question the film is to answer is what brought the change to this man, Leon. Director Schmitz brings his film to a satisfying conclusion with the verdict of the court case.
The film’s most absorbing parts still lie during the courtroom drama. Andrea Riseborough is marvellous as the prosecutor Kathleen Murray questioning Leon to breakdown.

The film was shot entirely in Cape Town, South Africa in English and Afrikaans. Why the film is called SHEPHERDS AND BUTCHERS is clear during a crucial scene at the end of the film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGdGrwd27Yk
 

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