Helmer Cathy Henkel’s search for justice for her mother, a white woman who was the victim of a savage rape by a white man in Johannesburg that went unpunished for over a decade, risks being claustrophobic in its home-movie intimacy. Returning to South Africa for the filming, Henkel initially remains within the narrowly focused orbit of the rape — interviewing police, neighbors, family and members of the judicial system. But, her quest expands until, rather abruptly, it assumes nearly cosmic proportions. Pic doesn’t trace the most cogent or artistically satisfying curve from personal to social justice, but arrives nonetheless. Tribeca docu prize winner will knock at arthouse doors before moving to PBS and women-targeted cable.
Henkel’s mother Laura never “got beyond” the rape that left her face and life shattered. Pic’s technical awkwardness, perhaps reflecting filmmaker’s uncertain distance, almost pays off in filmed confrontations with her mother’s accused attacker, a gesticulating digitized blur of denial in the center of the frame. Enlarging pic’s canvas, Henkel’s investigation reveals a country with widespread sexual abuse, where one out of two women is raped, and sodomizers of 2-year-old twin girls confidently walk the streets.