×

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.

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

  • Ryan Simpkins

    Ryan Simpkins Joins Fox-Disney's 'Fear Street' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Ryan Simpkins has joined Fox-Disney’s second installment of 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment’s “Fear Street” trilogy, based on the novels by R.L. Stine. Leigh Janiak is helming all three films. Previously announced cast includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia [...]

  • MPAA Logo

    Motion Picture Association of America Hires Emily Lenzner as Communications Chief

    The Motion Picture Association of America has appointed veteran public relations executive Emily Lenzner as its executive VP of global communications and public affairs. She will report to Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin and oversee the trade group’s communications team in the U.S. and internationally. Lenzner will start Aug. 1 and be based at the MPAA’s [...]

  • 'Cats' Teaser Trailer: See Taylor Swift

    Taylor Swift Unveils Feline Moves in 'Cats' Behind-the-Scenes Teaser

    Taylor Swift fans finally get to see some of the results of all those years spent studying her roommates Meredith and Olivia — and also, not incidentally, some time with a choreographer — in a new behind-the-scenes teaser for the movie “Cats.” The three-and-a-half-minute featurette has footage of Swift striking crouching feline moves as well [...]

  • CGR’s Immersive Premium Format Set for

    Immersive Theater Technology Set for US Debut in Los Angeles

    French multiplex company CGR Cinemas has selected the Regal LA Live as the first U.S. theater to use its Immersive Cinema Experience technology. The ICE format will be unveiled in the fall at the downtown location in a partnership between CGR and AEG. The companies made the announcement Wednesday but did not reveal which title [...]

  • Amazon Developing Original Series Based on

    Amazon Studios Buys 'Selah and the Spades,' Will Develop Original Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Amazon Studios has acquired worldwide rights to “Selah and the Spades,” a gripping look at a prep school drug dealer, Variety has learned. The film marks the feature debut of writer and director Tayarisha Poe and had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it was a favorite with critics. Amazon has [...]

  • The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con

    The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con Parties and Activations

    Hollywood is heading down the California coast to San Diego because It’s time for 2019 Comic-Con International. The annual cosplay celebration officially kicks off tomorrow, July 18, with a preview happening tonight. Here, Variety gives you a guide to this year’s parties and activations. Make sure to check back for updates. Wednesday, July 17Amazon Prime [...]

  • The Wound African Cinema Berlin Film

    Finance Forum Brings African WIP Into Focus at Durban FilmMart

    The 10th edition of the Durban FilmMart, which unspools parallel to the 40th Durban Intl. Film Festival, will feature 10 fiction and 10 documentary works-in-progress taking part in its annual Finance Forum. The leading co-production market on the continent, the Forum brings together producers, distributors, sales agents, broadcasters, funding bodies, and other industry players from across the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content