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First Look Review - FREE STATE

Two young South Africans from differing cultural backgrounds embark on a taboo relationship.



Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Salmon de Jager

Starring: Nicola Breytenbach, Andrew Govender, Leleti Khumalo, Deon Lotz, Mangesh Desai, Paul Eilers



Free State’s relaxed pace may at times become ponderous, and the performances are varied, but, overall, this is a charming, beautifully realised film. With its themes of bravery, pride and compassion, it's a captivating tale of love against the odds.


It was Jean-Luc Godard who suggested that the only plot devices absolutely essential to movie narrative were ‘a girl and a gun’. No doubt this reduction has proved to be a workable maxim for countless films, but even more successful is the trope which swaps the gun for another alliterative noun: guy. The representation of romance and coupling in art is one that is inexhaustible, as, being an aspect that defines our humanity, it is a feature that most relate to in some fashion or another; love is the great unanswered. Whether it is the aspirational wish fulfilment of rom-coms, or thrilling plot points predicated on infidelity, narrative conflict drawn from relationships (romantic or otherwise) drives modern cinema (come on, even in Batman V Superman, Superman’s sole motivation seems to be rescuing Lois). Taking its inspiration from Shakespearean tragedy, Salmon de Jager’s Free State is a movie about a girl and a guy, a star crossed couple whose partnership is subject to the prejudices and expectations of a society that does not recognise love in the same fervent way that it observes cultural tradition. And, as well as a girl and a guy, for poignant measure, Free State’s scenario even throws in a few guns too…


We’re in Africa in 1979 and beauteous Jeanette (Nicola Breytenbach) is leaving college, travelling home to the ‘free state’ to see her pastor dad (Deon Lotz) and maybe her soldier fiancé, who is due home from a tour of duty abroad. White Jeanette is as thoughtful as she is naïve; the film is told in flashback, and her opening voiceover combines with real life images of apartheid as she states that she has ‘come to doubt the values of the people’ with whom she has spent her life with. Meanwhile, in the city of Newcastle (KwaZulu-Natal), Hindu Ravi (Andrew Govender) is about to enter into an arranged marriage, but following a meet cute with homeward bound Jeanette (whose natty VW has hit a flat - classic meet cute!), it seems that his heart is about to take a different direction. They both like the same films (Star Wars and, more ominously, Love Story), and Ravi is such a nice fella that he throws state sanctioned caution to the wind and drives Jeanette home. The first snag in their blossoming relationship occurs when they reach Jeanette’s home late in the evening. Ravi, a ‘coolie’ in the racist parlance reserved for people of Indian origin, is not welcome in the province where Jeanette lives. It is, in fact, illegal for him to be there after dark, as a patrolling police officer takes officious delight in telling him. It’s a prejudice that the film suggests works both ways, as poor Jeanette regretfully discovers, when, trying to pay it forward, Ravi’s mum viciously chews her out for bringing a gift of beef to a vegetarian Hindu household. Star crossed, indeed.


The cinematography of Free State made me wish I was seeing it on the biggest screen possible; the technicolour vistas are simply too big and beautiful for home viewing. Furthermore, when Jeanette and her white friends speak, their language musically dips from English to the sprightly glottal rhythms of Afrikaans, and we see the Hindu rituals of Ravi’s family enacted in respectful montage: this Africa should be a paradise, a multicultural utopia of all creed and colour. But there are many snakes in this garden; the racist cops who think Ravi is part of an underground resistance, the gun toting family of Ravi’s fiancé, the ‘invisible wall’ of apartheid. ‘What is this’, Ravi asks of the illicit relationship, ‘I don’t know, but it’s not for us decide’, Jeanette replies, as their love begins its journey towards inevitable tragedy.


Free State’s relaxed pace may at times become ponderous, and the performances are varied, but, overall, this is a charming, beautifully realised film. Like Ravi and Jeanette, our understanding of the human heart will perhaps remain forever unsatisfied, but Free State, with its themes of bravery, pride and compassion, is a captivating tale of love against the odds.
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