×

Cannes Film Review: ‘The Harvesters’

There's brute beauty to spare in South African filmmaker Etienne Kallos' impressive debut, a stark, stately portrait of Afrikaner identity in crisis.

Director:
Etienne Kallos
With:
Brent Vermeulen, Alex van Dyk, Juliana Venter, Morné Visser.

1 hour 46 minutes

“Afrikaners is plesierig, dit can julle glo (Afrikaners are fun, that you can believe),” runs the chorus of the rustiest chestnut in Afrikaans folk music. It isn’t heard, much less proven, in “The Harvesters,” South African writer-director Etienne Kallos’ muscular, mood-rich debut feature. Unusual within the annals of its national cinema for its searching examination of the country’s once-dominant, now-dwindling white Afrikaner population, this sternly moving, vividly shot rural drama draws quasi-Biblical resonance from its tale of teenage foster brothers locked in a familial and cultural power struggle on a remote farmstead. That a low-key queer undercurrent courses through the conflict somewhat broadens the festival and distribution prospects of the film, the fine social divisions of which will nonetheless be unfamiliar to many outside viewers; in a Cannes edition heavy on auspicious debuts, this is among the most excitingly complete.

It says much about the out-of-time nature of life in the Bible belt of South Africa’s central Free State province — a flat expanse of scrubby yellow plains and maize fields, a million miles and yet not a million miles from the American Midwest — that it’s initially hard to tell what period Kallos’ film is even set in. Only once a cellphone appears in this rigorously visualized world of dateless khakiwear and ascetic midcentury furnishings can we tell for sure that we’re not still in the apartheid era, when white Afrikaans families like the one portrayed here were most prioritized and protected by ruling politicians. Now, nearly a quarter-century into the country’s rocky democracy, they seem quaint relics of a dark past, endangered by the very insularity of their community and, more directly, a drastic uptick in farm murders across the country. If not necessarily as racially driven as the infamous “kill the boer, kill the farmer” campaign of decades past, it’s a clear and rising threat, awareness of which young matriarch Marie (a superb Juliana Venter) drums into her young children with startling bluntness.

“There are so few of us left,” she explains morosely to her eldest child Janno (Brent Vermeulen), a quiet, dutiful 15-year-old boy whose extreme gentleness of nature is an unspoken but palpable concern to his parents — in a society where conservative models of masculinity still reign supreme. “Make his blood strong, make his seed strong,” she repeats in the near-incantatory prayer that opens the film, putting more faith in the Lord to keep Afrikaner blood running than in the boy himself. Janno, meanwhile, daren’t admit to anyone (perhaps not even himself, just yet) that his nascent sexual interests don’t extend to spreading his seed: In his tidy, sombre bedroom, he fantasizes about more-than-friends contact with a strapping rugby teammate.

It’s a secret that subtly becomes a bruise-tender point of ambiguous negotiation when Janno’s devoutly Christian parents welcome an underprivileged new boy into their family. Pieter (Alex Van Dyk) is around Janno’s age, though an adult lifetime’s worth of suffering flashes in his thin, flinty gaze: A sickly street orphan with a precocious history of crime and drug addiction, he’s unwillingly sent from a halfway house to Janno’s family farm, in the hope that some country air and straight-and-narrow Afrikaner discipline will right his path. While Janno’s opposite in many respects, Pieter is swift to identify the one thing that binds them: Neither boy will ever fully belong in this corn-fed, church-ruled, heritage-obsessed world of alpha males and nuclear families.

That’s not a cue for bonding, however, but for hostile, self-protecting competition, complicated by prejudices that may be eye-opening to audiences unversed in differences of culture and class within South Africa’s minority white population. Kallos’ literate, sharply calibrated script — partially inspired by the Free State-oriented work of the late, celebrated “African Gothic” playwright Reza de Wet — is brilliantly attentive to lexical contrast and code-switching, though it’s often in loaded silence that the characters reveal themselves most acutely. As a portrait of Afrikaans masculinity at a painful contemporary crossroads, “The Harvesters” would fill a strong double bill with Oliver Hermanus’ searing 2011 film “Beauty,” which likewise debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.

Unerringly precise casting, meanwhile, ensure that the film’s milieu is as richly inhabited as it is written. Vermeulen and Van Dyk, both extraordinary novice finds, articulate the boys’ individual and combined insecurities with restrained but bone-deep feeling, their characters almost merging in volatile ways as they begin to truly see each other. As for the Free State, an unromantically robust landscape that has thus far received more notable literary than cinematic evocation, it becomes a breathing, burning reflection of the boys’ own frustrations through Michal Englert’s brilliant, weather-soaked widescreen lensing and Barri Parvess’ impeccably observed production design. Together with Kallos, they conjure a grey-and-grass palette, spiked with oxide yellow light, for this fractious, earthy parable: The increasingly abandoned world of “The Harvesters” could seemingly ossify or bloom at any moment, taking the lonely, slowly awoken Janno with it.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: 'The Harvesters'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 14, 2018. Running time: 106 MIN. (Original title: "Die Stropers")

Production: (South Africa-Greece-France-Poland) A Cinema Defacto, Spier Films, Heretic, Lava Films production in coproduction with Bord Cadre, ERT in association with Moonduckling Films. (International sales: Pyramide International, Paris.) Producers: Sophie Erbs, Tom Dercourt, Thembisa Cochrane, Michael Auret, Giorgos Karnavas, Konstantinos Kontovrakis, Mariusz Wlodarski. Executive producers: Dan Wechsler, Jamal Zeinal Zade, Lawzi Manzi, Annette Fausboll, Julien Favre, Jean-Alexandre Luciani.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Etienne Kallos. Camera (color, widescreen): Michal Englert. Editor: Muriel Breton. Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine.

With: Brent Vermeulen, Alex van Dyk, Juliana Venter, Morné Visser.(Afrikaans, Zulu, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content