When you start thinking about actors who you'd like to see in more films, Joseph Fiennes and Dennis Haysbert are two fine examples. Having become a household name after 'Shakespeare in Love', Fiennes eschewed stardom in favour of a return to theatre while Haysbert, so memorable in supporting roles in 'Heat' and 'Far from Heaven', is still best-known for playing US President David Palmer on TV's '24'. Starring together here in 'Goodbye Bafana', both give further reminders of what cinema audiences are missing.
Adapted from the highly controversial book by former South African prison officer James Gregory, 'Goodbye Bafana' tells the story of the relationship between Gregory (Fiennes) and inmate Nelson Mandela (Haysbert) over the course of 22 years on Robben Island and later in Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons. Mandela's official biographer, the late British journalist Anthony Sampson, claimed that Gregory's (who died in 2003) account of his friendship with Mandela was false and that the two rarely spoke, with Gregory using his position as prison letters censor to gain insight into the future president's life. Whatever the accuracy of what you're watching, 'Goodbye Bafana' is compelling from the start.
It begins in 1968 with the career-minded Gregory arriving on Robben Island with wife Gloria (Kruger) and their two children. Having grown up on a farm in the Transkei, Gregory learned to speak the language Xhosa as a boy and because of this is put in charge of censoring the prison letters and visits of Nelson Mandela and the other imprisoned leaders of the African National Congress.
Told that he is on the fast-track to a great career in the prison service, Gregory initially takes to his post with great zeal, dehumanising the inmates and their families and telephoning the secret service if he thinks any information is relevant. When his daughter sees a black woman being beaten in Cape Town and separated from her child because she doesn't have a pass, Gregory tells her that the police officer was just doing his job and that the Apartheid system is adhering to "God's way".
But the longer Gregory spends reading the inmates' letters and watching them maintain their dignity amidst terrible conditions, the more he begins to question the political system in his country and his role in prolonging it. And he comes to realise that not at all the prisoners on Robben Island are behind bars.
Following on from the recent release of 'Catch a Fire', Danish director August's film provides more fascinating insights into life during Apartheid and deftly blends the personal and political. With Haysbert essentially playing a supporting role, Fiennes manages to portray the journey of a country through the experiences of one man. In every incarnation - be it racist, dissenter or friend - he is thoroughly convincing.
Leaving aside the question marks over Gregory's book, August does an excellent job at capturing the fear, paranoia and brutality of the era. From the breaking of rocks on Robben Island to the beating of women and the planting of car bombs, the director doesn't flinch from depicting the everyday realities and the questions and beliefs of both sides. By the close, those not well read in South African history will have a deeper understanding of those times and a greater desire to study Mandela's book. And, it must be said, Gregory's.