Dir: Anthony Fabian. 2008. UK/South Africa. 107 mins .
Telling the extraordinary true story of Sandra Laing, a woman born black to white parents in 1955 South Africa, Skin is a moving film which illustrates the impact of apartheid on a single family unit.
Boasting a measured and harrowing central performance from Sophie Okonedo, it bypasses the thunderous rage and violent struggle of apartheid stories like Catch A Fire or Cry Freedom, instead quietly focusing on notions of identity and family ties as they affect one individual. Her anguish lingers long after the end credits roll.
Stories set in South Africa have proved an audience turn- off in recent years - from Catch A Fire to Red Dust, Country Of My Skull and Goodbye Bafana. Perhaps these sputtered out under the weight of their own moral indignation, but, in telling a small story of a family torn apart, Skin might prove more successful with specialised distributors and capture a contemporary audience which can relate more readily to the mother-daughter separation it portrays. Women in particular will respond to the two strong female characters and the emotional strain under which their relationship is placed. A proven tearjerker at Toronto and other festivals it has played, Skin could also end up winning awards kudos for Okonedo.
Ella Ramangwane plays young Sandra, whose parents Abraham
(Neill) and Sannie (Krige) are white Afrikaner shopkeepers in a remote area in the eastern Transvaal. Rigid followers of the apartheid system, they have brought Sandra up as a white girl even though it is clear to all around that her skin is black.
When she is thrown out of the boarding school to which they send her, Abraham pursues a campaign to have her reinstated but state officials promptly reclassify her as ‘coloured’ and have her expelled. Enlisting the press, a case is that made a throwback gene - some black lineage in her parents’ ancestry - is responsible for her skin colour and she is reclassified ‘white.’
By the time she is 17 (Okonedo takes over now), Sandra is mightily confused. When she finds herself attracted to the local black vegetable seller Petrus (Tony Kgorge), the two begin an affair but her parents are furious and her father threatens to kill him. The two elope and Abraham disowns her, leaving Sandra to cope with the realities of being black in South Africa for the first time.
An accomplished narrative feature debut for UK documentary film-maker Anthony Fabian, Skin follows Laing’s story with an admirable restraint, never sliding into the melodrama which the true story could invite. The film also shows some of the disturbing mechanics of apartheid - a schoolteacher describing how whites and blacks are different, a waiting room where blacks aren’t allowed to take a seat.
While Okonedo dominates proceedings with an unshowy performance as Sandra, she is ably supported by Neill and Krige as her parents. Krige, who was born in South Africa herself, particularly meets the challenges of a juicy part as the mother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her maternal bonds to Sandra.
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