'The Harvesters' ('Die Stropers'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Tough love in South Africa.

This moody feature debut from Greek-South African director Etienne Kallos premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar.

A slow-burning and increasingly suffocating variation on the myth of Cain and Abel, The Harvesters (Die Stropersis the impressive feature debut from Greek-South African filmmaker Etienne Kallos. Set on the flat farmlands of central Free State province, this moody, boiling-beneath-the-surface drama, largely in Afrikaans, is yet another incisive exploration of one of the numerous and complex facets of masculinity in South African culture after such critical hits as Oliver Hermanus’ Beauty (Skoonheidand John Trengove’s The Wound. This Cannes Un Certain Regard title, which interweaves coming-of-age tropes and latent homosexual desire in a remote and largely unforgiving world where toxic masculinity is the standard, should look forward to a healthy festival life as well as an art house pickup or two.

Janno (Brent Vermeulen), about 15, is expected to pull his weight at one of the large Afrikaner farms that dot the semi-arid landscape. Though his body is already quite muscular from long days out in the fields, corralling livestock or harvesting corn, his angelic face betrays not only his frailty and inexperience but also his contrasting desire to love and be loved by those close to him and the near-constant fear of having his feelings hurt by the very same people. In short, his face is an open book — props to Kallos and whoever cast Vermeulen, who is one of this year's major acting discoveries in Cannes — which leads his extremely devout mother (Juliana Venter) to pray for strength for her son, for his blood and seed. 

His vulnerability, both a possible asset as well as a liability, is severely tested when the family — further comprising Dad Jan (Morne Visser) and three much younger sisters, all adopted — welcomes a new arrival, Pieter (Alex van Dyk). Though around the same age, in just about everything Pieter is the polar opposite of Janno. The newcomer is wiry and alarmingly thin instead of stocky, street smart, intrepid, insolent, and hella sure of himself and his — very low — place in society. As the son of a now-dead drug addict and prostitute who had him when she was 15, the age the boys are now, Pieter has seen it all and knows that betraying a sign of weakness is something he can hardly afford. For Janno, the question thus becomes whether he has to relinquish his position as the alpha male among the couple's children as well as his relatively small world at large.

When a street dog Pieter has sneakily adopted wreaks havoc on a neighbor’s flock of sheep, the boy practically begs Jan to be allowed to shoot the animal. To again underline where Kallos’ focus really lies, the reaction shot during the killing actually showcases Janno, who cringes and shuts his eyes so tightly it looks like he hopes to block out the entire world. What’s fascinating about the interactions between the two boys — who their parents hope will soon become brothers — is that Kallos sticks very closely to Janno’s point of view. For him, Pieter is someone whose way of life is completely alien to him, and at the same time Janno is aware that Pieter is someone to potentially emulate if he is to grow and fit into adult society. Further troubling their complex relationship is the fact that Pieter is actively pursuing girls while Janno secretly dreams of a guy he met at “man camp,” so it might become hard for him to tell the difference between wanting to become Pieter or wanting to be with Pieter

Kallos, who also wrote the screenplay, takes his time to move all these elements into place and there’s a sense that the writer-director and his editor, Muriel Breton, are somewhat tentative in the early going, as if they are unsure which story they are setting up to tell. And generally speaking, the film could have used a little more nuance in its depiction of the lives of these characters in this largely white, Bible Belt outback stretch of South Africa. Janno’s mother is not much more than a very religious woman for whom taking in the teenage son of a dead drug addict is her duty toward God and her community, which since the end of apartheid has become a less and less dominant force in South African society. The steadfast refusal of Janno's grandfather to recognize his grandson also feels a little too repetitive and on the nose (we never really see him serve any other purpose).

That said, the character of Janno’s father is an interesting one because Kallos forgoes turning him into a villain, which would perhaps be the easiest option in a film about a teenager trying to become a man in a hardhearted, male-dominated world. Jan is not a loving father, certainly, but also no tyrant or an exaggerated macho, and the general sense of how male behavior is judged and viewed comes more from Janno’s interactions with Pieter and his other peers, who might call him a faggot or a girl and who think nothing of immediately resorting to violence to show him who has the upper hand. 

(Spoilers in the following paragraph.) Kallos shows a pleasing knack for not always opting for the most obvious road, including when Pieter starts sleeping in the bedroom of his possibly queer adopted brother. That said, The Harvesters’ most breathtaking scene does take place in Janno’s bedroom. In the sequence, Pieter, kneeling on the floor, takes Janno, sitting on the bed, to task and simultaneously expounds on his own very bleak vision of the world, including the fact he’s fine with being considered “white meat” by johns willing to pay for an hour with his youthful body. Janno is shocked and the way Vermeulen, whose face is turned partially away from the audience so he mostly has to rely on body language, plays the scene is quite astounding. Different reactions take hold of the boy simultaneously as he processes all the information (some of which he has previously glimpsed), including awe at having had sex (and with men at that!), pity that Pieter has ended up doing exactly what his mother did, and also disgust and worry about being possibly associated with a rent-boy brother.

“I did everything right!” he violently insists, revealing the heartbreaking truth of growing up in a rigid society and within an equally rigid religion that both stifle the possibility for young people to become who they are meant to be, and where doing everything right rarely means they automatically become God’s, their parents' or their community's favored child.  

The taciturn nature of the story and the protagonists is reflected in Kallos’ technical approach to the material. With his Polish cinematographer Michal Englert, they opt for a combination of handheld camerawork and fixed shots that suggests the boys’ inner agitation or uncertainties, while the percussion-driven score from musical brothers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, which is ominously dissonant and drawn out, sets out to create a distinctive aural backdrop that’s like a musical translation of the landscape. By not suggesting the emotion of every moment and every scene, the music helps the film avoid slipping into melodrama. This, in turn, gives Harvesters a more mythical and timeless air as the characters and their predicaments slowly become one with the equally unforgiving landscape. 

Production companies: Cinema Defacto, Spier Films, Heretic, Lava Films, Bord Cadre, ERT, Moonduckling Films
Cast: Brent Vermeulen, Alex van Dyk, Juliana Venter, Morne Visser 
Writer-director: Etienne Kallos 
Producers: Sophie Erbs, Tom Dercourt, Thembisa Cochrane, Michael Auret, Giorgos Karnavas, Konstantino Kontovrakis, Mariusz Wlodarski
Executive producers: Dan Wechsler, Jamal Zeina Zade, Lawzi Manzi, Annette Fausboll, Julien Favre, Jean-Alexandre Luciani
Director of photography: Michal Englert
Production designer: Barri Parvess 
Editor: Muriel Breton
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Sales: Pyramide International
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

In Afrikaans
No rating, 106 minutes