“Sandra is a disruption.”
As the school principal delivers these chilling lines in the most nonchalant way, for the first time Sandra Laing is made aware that she is different. The year is 1965. Sandra is a ‘coloured’ girl born to ‘white’ Afrikaan parents, who are unaware of their black ancestry. She is labelled ‘coloured’ by the State and driven out of school. The father, refusing to acknowledge the different pigmentation of his beloved daughter takes to legal recourse. DNA experts are summoned and laws amended! But can law make Sandra ‘white’? Skin lightening creams, forced dates with ‘white’ men…nothing succeeds in unification. And then love in the form of a ‘black’ man, Petrus, a supplier at her father, Abraham’s store. Just when life seems smooth- a doting husband who calls her his ‘luck’, a caring mother- in-law, a son, familiar milieu- the State bulldozes the ‘black’ settlement. As Sandra tries to retrieve her parents’ photographs and Petrus, picks up essentials from the debris, he tells her, “I have nothing, my son has nothing… You can always go home.” Where is home? Her ‘white’ family who could never really reconcile with her skin or was it with Petrus who expected her to bury her past? One day as Petrus discovers Sandra talking about her estranged mother, the ‘white’ Sannie (Abraham has forbidden her to meet Sandra as she is living with kaffirs), he kicks her hard. He tells his friends, “Her skin is a curse!”
Race, fractured identities, discrimination, apartheid era South African sociopolitics, love, loyalty… myriad themes and a true story to boot. Yet debut filmmaker Anthony Fabian’s Skin delicately treads the tightrope between melodramatic and preachy verbosity and a clinically detailed biopic. In fact, though the story spans across three decades, the director does not play with timelines but chooses to tell his story in a linear graph. The result may not be a study in technique but what comes across is a searing and heartwarming tale of separation and reconciliation. A haunting score by Hélène Muddiman and stellar performances by Sophie Okonedo (Sandra), the Oscar nominated actor of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and Sam Neill (Abraham) give Skin an immediacy that is hard to resist. Mark Sophie’s stiff body language- the slight slouch in the initial frames as she grapples with her idea of self to the gradual resoluteness that comes with time. And Fabian’s little nuances are remarkable, the short conversation between Sannie and Abraham about fidelity or Petrus’s insecurity about Sandra’s love for her parents lend more layers to an already complex plot.
As an aside, Fabian’s struggle to find financiers and then distributors for this indie venture is material enough for another film. How ‘white’ or ‘colonial’ are we to resist a story that celebrates ‘difference’? Anyway that is a different polemical zone. For now, a big nod to a story well told!