A film covering “a pair of star-cross’d lovers” is certainly nothing new, and for centuries creators have strived to honour the trope by putting their own distinct spin on it. As a film by South Africans set in their very own country Free State sets itself apart from the crowd at its outset, in particular because it neglects the assumed Black and White mixed couple [and all of the baggage that comes with it] in favour of an Afrikaans woman and an Indian man.
Jeanette, South African model Nicola Breytenbach’s first role, is a law student in the mid-70s returning home to Memel and her father. Ravi, played by Andrew Govender, another model, is a man whose family is currently working out the specifics of his upcoming arranged marriage.
The reason they can never be together is spelled out in the first few minutes of the film in which Jeanette, describing her childhood, relates the story of a man arrested for being Indian in the Free State province after dark. She also shares the details of South Africa’s Immorality Acts that she learned about while in school, which explicitly prohibit sexual intercourse between White and non-White people. It’s racism, plain and simple, and while not the freshest romantic deterrent it’s nonetheless framed in way most viewers won’t be familiar with.
Given that Free State is a love story at its core it’s unfortunate that its greatest weakness lies in its leads. While neither Breytenbach nor Govender deliver their lines with the conviction one would expect from seasoned actors, their inexperience is also apparent in how they handle themselves when not speaking. Govender in particular has the default expression of a man who is always faintly aware of just how good-looking he is [and he’s not wrong].
What is fortunate for the film is how well it works everywhere else. Both Jeanette and Ravi’s families play a significant role, and while familial bonds are oftentimes what keep lovers apart in these circumstances their respective parents take a much more nuanced approach. Deon Lotz, who appeared in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom alongside Idris Elba and others, absolutely nails his performance as Jeanette’s father Gideon, a preacher who must keep his sorrow over losing his wife from both daughter and congregation. Despite not having anymore film experience than the film’s stars Nalini Subrayen lends a good amount of emotional complexity to her role as Aneesha, Ravi’s sister. All of that is in addition to the nighttime excursions and police investigations that both add intrigue and ramp up the plot.
As far as observing how a single romantic relationship can affect others Free State is at its most engaging when featuring the other half of Ravi’s arranged marriage. To continue the comparison to the Shakespearean play that I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it’s as if we were audience not only to Romeo and Juliet, but also Paris and how his friends and family take to his wooing of the young Capulet. As the third father of the film Keith Joshua Gengadoo plays a man who, much like Gideon, only wants best for his child.
Director Sallas De Jager makes the most of filming in the eponymous Free State, showcasing as much of South Africa’s breathtaking landscape as he can. Ultimately this is a beautiful film with many pieces that work exceptionally well that is hamstrung by having to focus on its shakier elements. Free State narrates a story that doesn’t look quite like anything you’ve seen before, but falters a bit in the telling.
Free State plays at the Garden State Film Festival on April 3rd, 2016 at 12:30 PM. Tune back in for an exclusive Q&A with producer Terwadkar Rajiv, as well as actors Nicola Breytenbach and Andrew Govender.