QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM THE TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL
Based on the eponymous 1985 novel written by Dalene Mathee and entirely spoken in Afrikaans, Fiela’s Child tells the story of a mixed race woman (the titular Fiela, played by Zenobia Kloppers) who lives with her black husband and four children in the arid hinterlands of South America, in a remote house behind the mountains. They are virtually cut away from the rest of the world. One day Fiela encounters a small white boy at her doorstep. She names him Benjamin and raises him as her own offspring.
Nine years later, the local authorities visit her dwelling while conducting a census. They are astounded to find the young Benjamin, whose skin colour is in profound contrast to the rest of his family. They take the child away, leaving Fiela and her family despondent. A local peasant recognises the boy as her very own child who went missing nine years earlier. The magistrate orders Benjamin to take up his new home, alleging that his real identity is Lukas van Rooyen. Benjamin/Lukas slowly settles in with his the family (with a new mum, dad, two elder brothers and a sister around his age). His formidable new father tells him that Fiela simply accepted the judge’s decision, and was happy that he had been returned to his blood relatives. In reality, Fiela had done everything her power to retain her much-loved son.
Fast forward to adulthood. Benjamin/Lukas is now a handsome young man, but his relationship with the van Rooyen’s isn’t a very healthy and rosy one. His father is violent and abusive. He has a very cosy and intimate connection with his sister Nina, bordering on the incestuous. One day he receives a letter from Feila revealing that one of his siblings has died. Perhaps it’s time he should return to his black origins.
Brett Michael Innes’s second feature film is constructed as a fable rather than a drama. There’s a distinctive magical feel about the cinematography, with the dry landscape of Benjamin/Lukas’s childhood contrasted against the verdant forest of his upbringing with the van Rooyens. The imagery is plush and delightful to look at.
But there are also a few issues. The script is very rigid – likely the consequence of being a literary adaptation -, and actors are never allowed to fully showcase their dramatic skills. The outcome is sometimes a little wooden. The music score is a somewhat treacly, peppered with schmaltzy little tunes. Plus the narrative has a few loose ends and gaps, which I presume come full circle in the book. For example, the relevance of Fiela being “brown” while the rest of the family are black is never clear. Fiela mentions that there was something unusual about the clothes Benjamin/Lukas was wearing on the night he was found, but that too is never elucidated.
In a nutshell, this is a cute little movie about racial segregation. It’s not a flawless period drama. But it deserves credit for portraying a moment of South Africa’s history unknown to most people.
Fiela’s Child has just premiered at the 23rd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, in Competition.