South Africans may not have a big international representation, but when we do manage to make a mark on shores different than our own, we take pride in it. Since we haven’t contributed much more to recent film history, other than Charlize Theron and District 9 (2009), home audiences were abuzz with excitement over Krotoa (2017). The film, written and directed by our own people, plucked no less than eight awards at various International Film Festivals.
When the film was finally released in South African theatres on 4 August, the result was probably not what anyone expected.
The movie itself is based on the history of its heroine. Krotoa was a Khoisan woman of the Goringhaicona tribe located in the Western Cape of South Africa. At the young age of ten or eleven she was taken into the household of the first Dutch Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, Jan van Riebeeck. The Dutch intention was to slowly assimilate the Khoisan to Dutch culture and tradition, and this proved effective in Krotoa, who grew to master the Dutch and Portuguese language, as well as Dutch manners and customs.
As she grew older, she became invaluable to Jan van Riebeek as she became his translator. She was instrumental in establishing and maintaining initial relations between the Dutch and Khoisan people. Krotoa proved to be not only a master in language, but a keen political thinker. She received a Christian baptism, and went on to marry a Danish surgeon. After her husband’s death, however, it is recorded that she became an alcoholic and was frequently imprisoned at the infamous Robben Island before her death in 1674.
To this day, Krotoa is one of the most celebrated and most written about women in South African history, and it is her story that this film tries to tell.
One of the biggest reasons for the divide on this film is the romanticizing of the Dutch colonialists, and the huge issue of how the two different races are represented throughout the film.
The film portrays the Dutch as god-fearing men who want to treat the Khoisan with nothing but kindness and understanding. Jan van Riebeeck’s character is portrayed as a tragic hero, who is haunted by his one misdemeanour. Yet history tells us that this is not the case.
Talking about her script, writer of the film, Kaye Ann Williams, mentioned that:
Yet this courtesy of creating three dimensional characters does not seem to extend to its characters of colour. The only three dimensional Khoisan character is Krotoa herself, while the Khoisan people are portrayed as nothing more than stereotypical savages.
As a woman, the character of Krotoa is sexualized throughout the whole film. Which does not only, shame the powerful legacy of Krotoa, but lends an eerie atmosphere of being rape apologetic to the film.
Krotoa is dressed by the governor’s wife, Maria van Riebeeck, yet unlike Maria’s shirts and dresses that cover all up to the neck, Krotoa is dressed in shirts and dresses that reveal her shoulders and collar bones. The camera lens seems almost infatuated with this, as well her form flattering skirts.
Before she is raped, by our tragic hero, Jan van Riebeeck, Krotoa is shown masturbating. To me this personally felt like the film equivalent of men justifying sexual assault by saying: “She was wearing a short skirt, she was asking for it.”
The rest of the film plays out as an odd sort of love triangle between Krotoa, Jan van Riebeeck, and Pieter van Meerhoff. To reduce such a historical figure’s story to not much more than a romantic conflict seems like an insult in the greatest degree.
To be fair, the film does ask very important questions that we are, in modern day South Africa, still asking ourselves. How do we divide the land and live together on the land in peace, when Europeans never had any legal claim on it? And is it possible to live together in peace and harmony at all?
This film sought to provoke a meaningful debate. But clearly its mind is already made up. Towards the end of the film, the character of Krotoa gets drunk, marches into an important dinner, given in her honour, wearing her traditional clothing, and gives a lukewarm speech about the evils of colonialization. But this action has no meaning, because the Khoisan people are disregarded throughout the entire film.
The film seems to suggest that peace and harmony is possible, if, and only if, everyone abides by the rules and regulations stipulated by the White Man. That the White Man will be generous if you can agree to a Eurocentric social contract. But starting a debate is impossible if you’re not open to other suggestions.
Despite the film’s critical acclaim, audiences are immensely divided. Myself included. Which made me ask myself: Why could international audiences enjoy this film? Why were they able to bestow awards, and yet I struggled to sit through it? Could it be, that this film hits too close to home? Does it make me too uncomfortable as a white person, and as a woman? Has South Africa not fully healed yet?
No, using that as justification would give this film a power it does not deserve.
It feels like the ideology in the film flies directly in the face of both the progress of our relatively young democracy, as well as how general thinking has changed about the horrors of the past. We cannot change history, but we can change the way we interpret it. By once again white washing the past, this film is no different from any history book published before 1950. Once again, they are telling the story from the perspective of the winners, and ignoring the millions of stories and voices on the losing side. Krotoa’s side.