Monday, October 19, 2009

Mill Valley Film Festival

Yesterday I watched a great film, Skin, directed by Anthony Fabian. The film is based on the true story of South African woman, Sandra Laing, born to white parents but classified as coloured during the apartheid era. Sandra is portrayed well by Sophie Okonedo, however, the child who portrays the younger Laing, was equally compelling as the child who up to the time she goes to boarding school, doesn't see any difference between herself and her parents and brother(s). When she moves into the larger society where skin color is one's racial classification, then one sees the self-hatred emerge as her father introduces his child to skin bleaching creams which burn her skin. The scene where he blows on her face to cool the fire is poignant.

I hadn't read the description in advance, so I thought the work was narrative fiction. One can imagine my surprise when I learn at the end of the film that Sandra Laing really exists and this is a true story. Wow! I'd certainly recommend this film to all anthropologists.

So what is race and how effective is it as a barrier when two apparently white parents can have a child who is not white? Genetically it's called a recessive gene--or a throw back, but what does this do to the psychological make-up of the family?

Sandra is eventually saved from life as a "coloured" citizen, yet, nothing is ever the same for her. Back at school, the boys don't date her and at home, her father's illusion of his daughter and Afrikaner suitors who would marry her is just that, an illusion. No white boy wants a black girl as a wife. One is not surprised when Sandra decides to be with the young African she grew up with, a man whom she began to sneak off to visit at night.

He is kind to her, even rescuing her from some of these dates she escapes from. However, his love is not enough to combat his hate for the apartheid system which means he cannot have a business and the government can at will bulldoze entire shantytowns--he says to friends, "They move us around like cattle."

No one speaks of the community removal which displaced so many Africans and the disruption on family life. I was speaking to a friend Saturday about what "coloured" meant in South Africa and what "colored" meant to an African American. I remembered that coloured didn't mean black and white or mixed heritage, actually coloured in South Africa was purely a catch all category for non-Bantu Africans like the Khoikhoi.

At the time Sandra is born, it is still against the law for white people to cohabit or have sexual relationships with black people, so when Sandra's father prosecutes her and the police pick her up from her boyfriend's home, she is imprisoned.

"Skin" looks at the way Sandra's skin color challenges the whole notion of white supremacy and racism. She is obviously intelligent, so if she is classified according to her parents' classification then what's to say that the entire system is wrong, that intelligence is not bound by race, that this is false science.

Okay, you might have a system of government that says certain people have certain privileges, but to say it is genetic is falsified by every "throw back" or recessive gene that produces children like Sandra from white parentage.

"Skin" is also about the bond between a parent and a child. Sandra loves her parents and they love her. It gets confusing when she brings in her lover and then husband into the fold--or tries to, but there is love there. Sandra has a normal childhood, surrounded in her isolated community by people who love her. Her husband doesn't understand why she wants anything to do with her mother when she is white.

He says to her, "I thought you were happy here."

She says she is, but this doesn't mean she doesn't miss her mother and father, and siblings. Before she leaves home she asks her dad if he loves her. For Mr. Laing, the political gets mixed up with the the end it's not what is good for Sandra that drives his actions, it's what good for the family and his name and decision he eventually regrets.


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