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118 minutes, 2005, South Africa
Producers: Joel Phiri and Jeremy Nathan, Director: Ian Gabriel
in English and Afrikaans with English subtitles

Forgiveness is one of the most moving and complex films on the seminal theme of truth and reconciliation to have been produced in South Africa. It is filled with images of sand-swept roads, wind driven clouds and pounding surf, all symbolizing letting go of the past and surrendering to the forward motion of time. It is ultimately a film about time, about our unresolved relation to the past, not about forgetting it but forgiving it, so we can finally let go of it and move on into the future.

Tertius Coetzee, a former policeman, tortured and murdered ANC activist Daniel Grootboom. Coetzee has confessed his crime and been granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but he does not feel his guilt can be assuaged until Daniel's family has exonerated him. He travels to their home in the fishing village of Paternoster on the windswept coast of South Africa's Western Cape, home of the country's Coloured or mixed race population. The screenwriter no doubt chose the town's name Paternoster because of the phrase in the 'Our Father,' 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.'

The Grootboom family is understandably not eager to meet their son's murderer. His mother, Magda, has been so traumatized that she has hardly left the house in the years since his death and lives largely through soap operas. His father, Abraham, is still ashamed that his son was a 'terrorist' and publicly attributes his death to a car-jacking. But his sister, Sannie thinks this is a perfect opportunity to avenge his death and calls Daniel's comrade, Llewelyn, to mobilize the two other remaining members of his ANC cell, Luke and Zuto, to drive from Johannesburg to Paternoster to kill Coetzee. This sets up the classic suspense situation: will the three former militants reach Paternoster before Coetzee leaves?

As a stalling tactic Sannie invites Coetzee to tea the next afternoon. He insists on telling the Grootbooms about their son's death in gruesome detail. Daniel was betrayed by one of his ANC comrades and the police found explosives and a map of a nuclear power station in his room. After a night of torture Daniel still refused to give away any information; all he said to Coetzee was: "Why don't you just kill me." Coetzee obliged by putting a bullet through his brain which can hardly be thought of as a mercy killing. The tea party ends when Daniel's younger brother, Ernest, a representative of the angry, disillusioned, post-apartheid generation, breaks a tea pot over Coetzee's head. Sannie observes that Coetzee may want punishment more than reconciliation. Despite this incident Coetzee invites the family to dinner at a hotel which they note they could never have patronized under apartheid. This becomes a magical moment where the resentments and wounds of the past are put aside for the dance of the present.

Meanwhile, Llewelyn, Zuto and Luke are racing towards Paternoster accusing each other of having betrayed Daniel to the police. On the way they recover a weapon's cache hidden beneath the sea, literally dredging up the past. They arrive in Paternoster just in time to find Coetzee and the Grootboom family saying the 'Our Father' at Daniel's grave. Sannie confesses what she has done and warns Coetzee but he is unafraid and goes up to the car and invites his three assassins to join them in prayer. The three get out but one, Zuto, turns back for a gun and kills Coetzee.

The last line of the film is tantalizingly ambiguous. As the car screeches away Zuto explains his act by stating, "I swear, I had no choice." We don't know whether he means he had no choice in betraying Daniel, in silencing Coetzee or in taking revenge on Coetzee or all three. We do know that he too is now a murderer and it is left for us the audience to grant him forgiveness or not. In any event Coetzee has won his forgiveness, by confessing his guilt and by showing his willingness to reenter the community of humanity - whatever the price. He has transformed Paternoster by his sacrifice. Sannie leaves for the city and a new life, Abraham sets out to sea now that the fish are running again and Magda sits outside her house taking in the eternal breaking of the waves and billowing of the sand.

The film ends with a quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "Having looked the beast of the past in the eyes, having asked and received forgiveness, let us shut the door of the past, not to forget it, but to allow it not to imprison us." Ironically Coetzee wins forgiveness for just a few hours before his death while Zutu is still caught up in the grinding cycle of vengeance. Yet the Grootboom family has been freed by Coetzee's act of repentance. They and he have re-entered the flow of time.

Viewers interested in finding out more about South African ideas of dispute resolution, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and ideas of restorative justice may want to compare Forgiveness with two other Library of African Cinema releases Long Night's Journey Into Day and Zulu Love Letter.
"Let us shut the door to the past- not to forget it but to allow it not to imprison us."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
"Evokes universal themes of betrayal and redemption with the majesty of a Greek drama."
Globe and Mail, Toronto
"A gripping tale of retribution and revenge."
Time Out, New York
"Offers a poignant reflection on the tensions between national reconciliation processes and the contradictory and 'messy' nature of individual reckoning with the past, both for survivors dealing with residual trauma, and for perpetrators grappling with their guilt."
Graeme Simpson, International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ)


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