I travel to A World Apart, which in this film based on real life anti-Apartheid protester Ruth First (played by Barbara Hershey) is 1963 South Africa, for its showing Turner Classic Movies. It plays on Friday, December 11.
Like Cry Freedom, A World Apart dramatizes the evils of Apartheid and the racist policies of the ruling government through the story of white South Africans, in this case journalist and activist Diana Roth (Barbara Hershey) and her husband Gus (Jeroen Krabbé), who is seen fleeing the country for his safety in the opening scenes. It’s the last that his thirteen-year-old daughter (named Molly in the film and played by Jodhi May) sees of him in the film. The time is 1963 and Molly is just old enough to question the appalling treatment of the country’s black citizens by the whites. The setting also resonates with American history: the civil rights struggle in the American south was intensifying in the early sixties.
A World Apart is the feature directorial debut of Chris Menges, the Oscar®-winning cinematographer of The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986). Like those earlier films (both directed by Roland Joffe), there is a strong social consciousness and political content, but Menges also brings a subdued dramatic atmosphere and rich visual sensibility to the film, layering scenes with telling details that illustrate the conditions of life in this place and time. He takes care to view the story from the perspective of Molly and draws a poignant and powerful performance from the young May. She is excellent as the spirited, affectionate, curious girl who communicates her growing awareness with wide eyes and pained expressions that wash across her face. Watching an elderly man knocked violently off his bicycle in a hit-and-run by a white driver is startling, but it’s the callous apathy of the white bystanders that haunts her.