Award winning South African film director and screenwriter Oliver Schmitz was in attendance at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival to introduce his latest feature film which originally got its World Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016 and was being shown as part of EIFF's World Perspective Strand, which is designed to include movies "that will impress, beguile and challenge in equal measure" and Shepherds and Butchers (2016) did just that.
Certainly more than your standard courtroom conflict, although the courtroom does act as the hub for the drama that unfolds. The movie begins with a murder, in fact seven murders; we follow prison guard Leon Labuschagne (Garion Downs) as he drives his car along the rain soaked highway on his way home from work. An incident takes place between Labuschagne's vehicle and a mini bus transporting seven black members of a local youth football team. Both vehicles stop, everyone gets out, the shouting starts and then the prison guard opens fire with an automatic pistol and kills all seven occupants of the mini bus. Hired to defend Labuschagne Johan Webber (another great role for Steve Coogan, who I believe is a better actor than comedian) he can't get the accused to reveal his motive for the cold-blooded execution of the young football players. Initially unable to build an adequate defence to defy the State Prosecutor Kathleen Marais (Andrea Riseborough) that will avoid his client getting the death penalty, Webber has to build a case that for this brutal crime would almost amount to an impossible task.
Seven years in development and three years to get it on screen it was adapted by Brian Cox from a novel by Chris Marnewich which itself is based on true events that took place in South Africa in 1986 at a time when apartheid still had eight years to run. The director admitted that he could not make film at that time. It's a film that deals with the effect that South Africa's penal system, its death penalty and the inhuman hangings had on those that worked on death row. Don't be mistaken, this is not a straightforward story - this is in fact a harrowing and hard watch about legalised state killing. As the story unfolds we get to witness treatment of human beings that is totally against their human rights as well as offending common decency. Credit where credits due Oliver Schmitz does not hold back on the graphic details and one can't help feeling that South Africa's White ruling elite had an awful lot to answer for, an elite that upheld SA’s brutal regime. Those that carried out these death penalties will be locked in a bubble of violence for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately there still does not appear to be a UK release date but when it does finally gets a release go and see this film, it will make you realise what could happen to any of us if we were put in the same position as Leon Labuschagne.