FREE STATE (2016)

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Writer/Director: Sallas De Jager |  Producer(s):Terwadkar Rajiv, Piet De Jager, Sallas De Jager | Dop:Tom Marais | Cast: Nicola Breytenbach, Andrew Govinder, Leleti Khumalo, Hemali Juta-Pillay, Mangesh Desai  and Deon Lotz. 

Free State plays at the Garden State Film Festival, 3rd April at 12.30pm

Ambitions and dreams lock horns with rules and expectations in this beautifully constructed South African film. 

It’s the 70s and Jeanette has graduated in Law, and is on the precipice of beginning a new life in a time of civil, gender and cultural change. The future is seemingly bright, if anything it’s a life less complicated set out before her, if she chooses to comply. But when kind handsome stranger Ravi comes to her rescue, it’s fair to say that the chance encounter isn’t part of her life plan.

Not only are Jeanette and Ravi engaged to other people, there’s the serious problem that she is white and Ravi is Indian: in 1970’s South Africa it’s criminal offence to engage in an interracial relationship.Free State is ultimately a film about consequences. What happens when you fall in love with someone deemed not suitable? It’s about the chain reaction of events set off by two people who fall in love in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

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I enjoyed this film immensely. It’s a story of cultural expectations, betrayal, and family but at the heart of it is a story about love and humanity. It’s nice to see a film from South Africa outside of the, oft contrived, political-centric biopic that Hollywood like to produce. This is about the people on the periphery, the people affected, and it’s not so black and white unquestionable hate, on either side.

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Where this film presents its weakness is in the third act. Too many loose threads presented in the beginning of the film are not fully explored: Ravi’s temperamental relationship with his younger sister; his betrothed and her sinister family; the deeper motives of the men determined to arrest Ravi and any sign of Jeanette’s compassion for the law, having just graduated and experiencing injustice first hand – all of these take backseat to the central story of racial disparity and forbidden love.

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Hearing Afrikaans, Hindi, and English dialects intertwined throughout Free State is such a unique and pleasing detail of this film. It’s almost like writer/director Sallas De Jager is determined to spotlight and encourage inclusivity and it’s a charming direction.

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Where faith and religion centres heavily so does the desire not to focus on one with bias or the tendency to sermonise; through beautifully shot rituals from both sides we get a deeper sense of the cultural differences and similarities that give the central characters more depth. They are both inherently good people who deserve happiness, but the limitations of their environment means it’s difficult. If I was to liken this film to anything then the obvious comparison would be the story of Romeo and Juliet. At a push, Titanic (the film, obviously. With the small stagnant South African town  and its stubborn citizens perhaps a metaphor for the titular ill-fated ship).

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All the cast are great, with a particular nod to well known South African actors Deon Lotz and Hemali Juta-Pillay as Jeanette’s loving reverend father Gideon and Ravi’s nagging but equally doting mother Chatura, respectively. 

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Nicola Breytenbach and Andrew Govinder as the lovebirds are too aesthetically pleasing not to watch, but it’s Nicola who is the standout performer of the entire film. She is wonderful in this role and carries the film effortlessly. And this may be a weird thing to note, but her voice – each delivery of her dialogue is just so perfect – she’s definitely one to watch.

Free State plays at the Garden State Film Festival, 3rd April at 12.30pm

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