Saturday, June 25, 2022

Steve Coogan in a Strong South African Movie

Steve Coogan is well established as a comedian and even though I also saw him in "Philomena" (2013) it can be hard to break an image.  For me his role in "Shepherds and Butchers" (2017) settles the issue.  He is a professional actor with a good selection sense.

 "Shepherds and Butchers" is a court room drama, different than most I have seen.  It is set in South Africa during apartheid.  We see a cold blooded murder of seven blacks by a white man as they emerge from a van.  Everyone in the court concedes Leon did kill the seven men with no apparent motive.

Steve Coogan's character is the lawyer, John Weber who is mystified at first, but twigs onto the fact that Leon had worked in a prison on an execution team.  Leon had wanted to avoid military service and was offered the prison work as an alternative.  

His introduction to his duty of taking care of condemned men was very abrupt.  Within a day he participated in an execution of 7 black men simultaneously.  Many of the men were crying and a few wet their pants.  Their deaths were by hanging.  Later Leon learned one of his responsibilities was to measure the clothing so that death would be instantaneous.  He also helped to bury the men.

It is likely the bodies we witnessed being dropped were dummies, but one time an inmate only broke his neck but was still alive in agony.  The guards had to pull him up without touching him and drop him so that he died.   It seems most of the condemned men were black, but at least one white man who Leon had met with his family was included.  

John who was against the death penalty decided there was no point to denying his client had killed the 7 men, but was concerned what motive could drive a man to do such as cold blooded murder,  Leon did not want to talk about his experiences and the court didn't want to force him.  John asserted his rights and explained why he wanted to reveal Leon's job.  The reluctance to testify was nerve wracking.

We learn Leon has been separated from his wife and daughter after many arguments and fights.  He would not admit to feeling affected by what he was shamed into doing.  His lawyer kept pushing.  A clincher was when re enacting the events he learned that the trigger was the slamming of a van door being very similar to the drop of the hanging platform. 

Today we are more conscious that those who do degrading work are diminished in the process.  It had been pointed out that Leon had not been tested for aptitude or trained.  

During the credits we were notified that South Africa had executed a large number of men.  After Nelson Mandela, gained power in 1994 executions were abolished.   It seems the film was meant to make points against capital punishment and employer abuse which it accomplished.

An unanswered question was if justice was achieved.  The aggrieved relatives were not satisfied.  We need to deal with the underlying causes such as poverty, abuse and neglect. 

Won an audience award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Oliver Schmitz was the director.    Born and raised in South Africa he was a co-owner of a nightclub that was able to defy segregation rules.  In 1988 his first feature, "Mapantsula" was anti apartheid film that at first was banned in South Africa, but afterwards won awards and had been shown at Cannes.  Most of his films have been in German and he now lives in Berlin.  He has done a few South African films usually with a racial theme.

Writer Brian Cox also produced.  His credits include  "Remember" (2015) and "Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom" (2013).  

Chris Marnewick provided the inspiration with his first t novel.

Music was provided by Paul Hepker.  Some of is credits include:  Oscar winner "Tsotsi" (2005), "Rendition" (2007) and "Eye in the Sky" (2015)

Leah Striker was responsible for the cinematography.  Most of her films are in German and she has worked with Oliver Schmitz.

Megan Gill edited the film.  Earlier credits include  "The Ghost and the Dark" (1995), "Tsotsi" (2005), "Rendition" (2007) and Eye in the Sky" (2015).

Casting was done by Moonyeenn Lee who was born in South Africa, but moved to England where she formed a talent agency in 1974 and got into casting going back to South Africa.  Her credits include "Hotel Rwanda" (2004), "Tsotsi" (2005), "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" (2008), "The First Grader" (2010), "Safe House" (2012)"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" (2013) "Homeland" (2014) and "Eye in the Sky" (2015).  She died of Covid-19 complications.

Steve Coogan developed a reputation as a mimic; on one occasion he mimicked an interviewer.  Most famous movie "Alan Partridge" ( 2013) was about a mimic.  Other credits include "The Trip" (2010), "What Maisie Knew" (2012),  "Philomena" (2013), "Despicable Me 2" (2013)"Stan & Ollie" (2018).    Steve has also been involved as a producer and a writer.  He did a stand up comedian tour.

Garion Dowd played Leon.  He comes from an acting family with his mother a drama teacher while his father and brother are also actors.

Andrea Riseborough is a British actress whose credits include:  "Never Let Me Go" (2010), "Oblivion" (2013),  "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (2014, "Witness for the Prosecution" (2016) and "Battle of the Sexes" (2017).

Steve Coogan proved to me at least that he is much more versatile actor than I had assumed.  The film he chose (or at least agreed to) is a film with a strong message.  I doubt few would be offended by the message, but many would find it too strong for their stomach.

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