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Great Railway Journeys II

Guide: Rian Malan.

Guide: Rian Malan.

Filmed in South Africa by BBC-TV in association with WNET, New York. Exec producers (BBC) Janet Street-Porter, (WNET) Linda Romano; exec in charge (WNET) George Page; producer, director, Gerry Troyna; writer, Rian Milan; No mere travelogue, this engrossing hour, the third in the six-part “Great Railways Journey II” series, is kept on track by the sly wit and caustically informed observations of its writer-guide, Rian Malan. The more he meanders, the closer he comes to the complex heart of his homeland.

With his dangling cigarette and a bumpy-road voice that demands you lean in to listen, author-journalist Malan comes off as a kind of Boer Belmondo. He’s a shadowy presence, an angst-driven Afrikaaner at war with his heritage; his inherent darkness sucks light from a room.

Malan is the anti-starched-and-blow-dried posturing reporter. Brooding, poetic, absorbing and metamorphic, he’s almost a metaphor for the landscape he journeys through. He doesn’t feel like standard TV, he doesn’t act like standard TV, he doesn’t sound like standard TV, and neither — the true strength of this enterprise — does what he delivers onscreen.

On the surface, Malan’s ride — several trains, from luxury to third class, as well as a truck and an armored military vehicle — from the tip of the continent in Cape Town, where he lives, to a bizarre resort of fake ruins north of Johannesburg — is a fact-finding mission to test the post-apartheid pulse of the country on the eve of last spring’s first ever open elections.

But Malan makes it more idiosyncratic — and more personal — than that. The timing, in the wake of the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani, could not have been more fortuitous. Hani was seen as a bridge between moderate and militant black leaders; his death brought demonstrators into the streets and tension into the atmosphere. The nation and its people are on edge.

Malan keeps viewers on top of the news. With everybody along the route, he talks about politics, economics, the past, and the future.

But he also avoids the obvious, taking viewers to more intriguing places for point: a black township outside of Springfontein, and a redneck bar within this Afrikaaner stronghold; and counterpoint: tea with white matrons at an opulent Cape Town hotel, and an evening with an old friend who’s left the city for an isolated farm in the mountains.

Beautifully shot, Malan’s journey treats South Africa not so much as a place, but as a living, breathing entity on the verge of great change.

“It’s a sad and strange country,” he observes while visiting with Ella Gandhi , the Mahatma’s granddaughter, on the outskirts of Durban in the ruins of the Utopian commune her grandfather founded around the turn of the century.

“Almost all of us claim to believe in the sacred principles of human rights. Yet eight decades after Gandhi left us, all we have is ‘zabalaza,’ the struggle.”

Which, in the end, is what Malan’s journey is about. Not blame. Not politics. Not apartheid and its dismantling. Not even hope. But struggle. Both Malan’s and his country’s. That they are so intertwined — and symbiotically dramatic — makes this rail excursion both beautiful and riveting.

Great Railway Journeys II

Production: PBS, Thurs. Oct. 27, 8 p.m.

Crew: Camera, Andrew Carchrae, David Jones, Ken Eddy; editor Patrick Haggerty; music, Roy Mason.60 MIN.

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