With its characters herding cattle through an austere, dusty landscape, “The Harvesters” bears a passing resemblance to a Western. But the setting of the movie, which won critical acclaim for its first-time director in Cannes, is not the Wild West but South Africa, and its cowboys are Afrikaners, a community that thrived in the apartheid era but now faces an uncertain future.
The story follows teenage boy Janno, the oldest child and only son in a God-fearing family whose life and sense of self are thrown into chaos by his parents’ decision to foster an orphan, Pieter, a 13-year-old child recovering from drug addiction and life as a rent boy.
Writer-director Etienne Kallos, a South African, but not an Afrikaner, was drawn to the story of a community in a “post-post-colonial” world that finds itself increasingly isolated.
“They are overlooked, I would say, in many ways,” Kallos told Reuters in Cannes.
“They are under-represented, especially because the only thing people think about is apartheid. But there’s so much more going on.
“The new generation of Afrikaners was born completely outside the apartheid regime and they’re moving towards some sort of a new Africa and don’t know what that is yet.”
There is a sense of identity under threat, both for the community and for Janno himself, played by newcomer Brent Vermeulen, whose deep feelings for his best friend do not fit with the macho rugby-playing culture.
Screen Daily said: “This assured feature debut effectively hints at a churning savagery beneath the surface, which is every bit as unforgiving as the stark landscape”.
That landscape, in Eastern Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, with its mesas, striking flat-topped mountains, was the starting point for Kallos.
“I set out to make a film about place,” he said.
“We worked hard to somehow capture … a grandeur that the landscape is bigger than the people.
“I wanted to feel the landscape was more important than the characters or more powerful than the characters.”
“The Harvesters” (“Die Stropers”) is in competition in the “Un Certain Regard” section at the Cannes Film Festival that runs to May 19.