Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Shepherds and Butchers'

Shepards and Butchers

Director Oliver Schmitz discusses his long journey into South Africa's racist past and the damage done during apartheid on both sides of the racial divide.

Throughout his career as a filmmaker, Oliver Schmitz has explored the institutional racism and violence that tore apart his home country of South Africa.

His first feature, 1987’s Mapantsula, followed a petty gangster caught between personal gain and joining the anti-apartheid struggle to fight for the greater good. The 2000 feature Hijack Stories looked at the rise in violent crime post-apartheid, and 2010's Life Above All examined the scourge of HIV/AIDS and its impact on South African women.

For his latest, Shepherds and Butchers, which premieres in Berlin’s Panorama section on Saturday, Schmitz returns to South Africa and to the deeps scars apartheid has left in his country and its people. But there’s a difference. This time, the victim is white.

The film’s story, based on real events, follows the trial of a 19-year-old white South African charged with murder after gunning down a group of seven black men. During the trial, it emerges he was a prison guard and, over a period of two years, was forced to execute some 160 men, mainly black activists. His lawyer — British comedian Steve Coogan in a rare dramatic role — believes the experience has left him traumatized and fights to save his client from the death penalty.

“For the first time, it's a film that shows the conflict at the heart of the white soldiers, many of whom had their innocence destroyed by the apartheid system,” says Schmitz. “They were brought up to be racists, to obey blindly. It is the question inherent in any fascist society: What turns people into monsters? I think the perspective of the white South African racist is a valid one and one that hasn’t been addressed in film before.”

The pic’s title comes from the dual role assigned to prison guards on Death Row in South Africa. They were charged with caring for black prisoners sentenced to death — “they cooked for them, talked to them, were often their only companions in their final weeks” — but the same men marched them to the gallows and watched them hang, says Schmitz.

“This wasn’t a film I could have done 20 years ago. I was personally so disgusted and angry at the society I grew up in, I would never have considered looking at the humanity of the white killers,” he says. “But I think this is something we have to take a deep hard look at, because it's part of the issues that are still troubling South African society.”

Two decades after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — the film’s protagonist is based on the sole prison guard who testified before the committee, and was subsequently ostracized by his family and friends — Schmitz says white South Africans still gloss over their country’s racist past­.

The filmmaker cites the current movement to tear down statues of former South African prime minister and fervent racial imperialist Cecil Rhodes. “I think white South Africans share a collective guilt — we all benefited from the apartheid system — and that’s been buried and forgotten," says Schmitz. "Personally, I’d like to see the country keep its Rhodes statues, but put them all on Robben Island [where Nelson Mandela was detained] — make a museum where people could go to mock Rhodes’ ideas.”

South Africa has done a lot to try to give a voice to the country’s once-silenced black majority, Schmitz says. But real healing, he argues, can only come when the white population begins to dig deep into its own past and examine the damage the old system did — to all South Africans.

WestEnd Films is selling Shepherds and Butchers in Berlin.