Fatherlandby Nedine Moonsamy / 08.11.2013
Fatherland offers exclusive entry into the Kommandokorps, where a group of boys embark on a nine day camp during their school holidays to relive the military experiences of their fathers. The camp is run by right-wing extremists who believe that the Afrikaner nation can be returned to its former glory if Afrikaner boys are liberated from the propaganda of post-apartheid South Africa and learn to defend their people against the enemy. In South Africa, the unfortunate verdict is that stories of this kind no longer shock us – we are bombarded and overwhelmed with racist and sexist opinions from all political quarters at every turn.
Ostensibly, Tarryn Lee Crossman, director and producer, responds to the viewer’s exasperation by undercutting the more obvious socio-political script with what can easily be described as a boys’ adventure narrative. Adhering to what Crossman calls a vérité style, the narrative invests largely in the universal, if not existential, battle of young men wanting to fit into and fill their father’s army boots. It is a rather romantic rendition of (mainly) pre-pubescent boys maintaining some sense of desire and anxiety in relation to the wider metaphoric reading of the father’s-land that they must either enter or betray.
In this regard, we are offered some necessary reprieve from political sensationalism, and it’s refreshing to watch a documentary about Afrikaner extremism and to not respond with reflexive political rage. Instead, we are allowed to forge bonds with the hapless boys who enter the camp, to feel sympathy for the sad figure that the Colonel cuts as a man of fading importance. The characterisation is largely comic as opposed to tragic: subjects are exposed as fallible as opposed to powerful. The strength of their convictions for the politically unsustainable dream of reviving the volk is read as a pathetic nostalgia that can only be relived on camp. Ultimately, it is the success of this documentary to have us respond with empathy, rather than annoyance, to the marginalization and anxieties of cultural dissolution that Afrikaners experience in post-apartheid South Africa.
Yet, while the very success of the documentary lies in its lack of political mediation, it also goes some way towards exposing its potential fault lines. It is with some trepidation that I wonder about the effects this documentary may have on a more conservative Afrikaner audience. For while politically liberal documentary-watching types are trained to read for hints of irony when we watch Afrikaners sing ‘De La Rey’, pathos can easily be misconstrued for the purposes of irresponsible political nostalgia. Mostly, this becomes a lingering concern become the documentary does, more generally, play heavily on nostalgia. There are numerous scenes capturing the gruelling physical experience on the camp as the boys roll around in mud, shoot each other with pellet guns and build tents in the open veldt. They are trained to develop ‘old-school’ values such as piety, discipline and team loyalty. In this soft-sell mode, there is the slight risk of making pretty the disdainful. Fatherland does indeed romanticise the simple journey of becoming a man ‘like my father’, but it does little to problematise the heavily militaristic conception of manhood that rests at the heart of Afrikaner nationalism and informs the very conception of a ‘Fatherland’.
Presumably, this falls outside of the scope of a documentary (as some things must) that seeks primarily to seduce its viewer through a well-developed boys’ adventure narrative. To this end, the documentary remains loyal; our hopes rest entirely on our young male subjects as they venture tentatively towards the future. We remain invested in their conflicted attempts to read their time at Kommandokorps as just an army adventure and hope that the complexity of the real world will eventually help them achieve this aim.