The title of acclaimed director Oliver Schmitz’s new film (based on a book of the same name) comes from a quote by that famous eighteenth century philosopher, Voltaire: “Governments need to have both shepherds and butchers.” But, as the lead character in the film, Shepherds and Butchers, concludes, you cannot expect someone to be both at the same time.
The film takes place in South Africa in 1987. 19-year old Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds) drives erratically in a rainstorm. His expression is maniacal, his eyes red, hair disheveled – a man clearly in the grips of a mental and emotional breakdown. A minibus taxi drives past him. The vuvuzelas and cheering agitate him even more. He cuts off the vehicle. Gets out of his own. Pulls out a gun and begins firing. It’s a slaughter during which seven football fans are viciously murdered.
What drives someone to do such a thing, seemingly without motive? How can a soft-spoken boy with blue eyes and a baby face be a ‘monster’? That’s the question renowned human rights lawyer, John Weber (Steve Coogan), needs to answer. John doesn’t particularly want to defend Leon, who is refusing to talk or provide any kind of motive for the crime. He admits that he likely committed the murders, but claims he cannot remember the circumstances leading up to the event, or why he pulled the trigger. But as a firm opponent to the death penalty, as well as the fact that no one else is willing to take Leon’s case, John does his best to dig deeper and answer the question, “why?” to try help Leon avoid the same noose he has used to kill others. For, Leon is an executioner.
When Leon takes the stand, John tries to provoke an emotional response from him, and in a series of flashbacks, Leon recalls how he was employed by Correctional Services at the age of 17 and immediately assigned to death row, something unusual for one so young. But Leon is an expert at calculating ‘drops’ – the exact length of rope needed to ensure each of the condemned are killed most efficiently. Leon is a quiet soul. Yet he’s forced to ‘pick’ who his first hanging will be. He must violently subdue unruly prisoners. He must drag the frightened, weeping men in his care to the drop. He must put bags over their heads, tighten a rope around their necks, and then watch as a lever is pulled and the men fall into a pit.
In one year Leon witnesses the hangings of 164 black men; men he had come to know and even befriend. Some, like the head warden, are hardened by the killings. But Leon internalises what he has to do. It is crushing because death is heavy and killing even heavier. But does the trauma of what he witnesses, of what he is made to do while in essence still a child, negate or at least soften his ‘crime’?
Shepherds and Butchers (under the watch of uber-producer Anant Singh) is visceral, brutal, and chilling. Schmitz pulls no punches. The audience sees the blood, entrails and shit that accompanies executions. The squirming of some prisoners when the rope length isn’t calculated correctly is nauseating. The viewer is forced to watch as a man is pulled up and dropped again and again until dead. The violence is so savage that some audience members were treated for trauma at some screenings. This film is more harrowing, more alarming than any of the most well-known films dealing with the death penalty: The Life of David Gale, Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile, True Crime (all of which helped, in some part, reluctantly turn me against capital punishment). A desaturated palette and deep shadows create a feeling of spirit-crushing doom. Is it too much? That’s hard to say. Perhaps it is necessary, just as it was necessary and still is to be confronted with what Apartheid did, how it brutalised both victims and perpetrators, though it may be a bitter admission.
Steve Coogan (nominated for an Oscar as one of the producers for the film, Philomena) is credible and solid in his portrayal as John, whose arguments against the death penalty are countered by his co-defender on the case, Pedrie Wierda (Eduan van Jaarsveldt), a staunch proponent of capital punishment. Pedrie holds the same views many South Africans still hold today, after all, who wants ‘animals’ who rape and murder walking the streets? Andrea Riseborough is tough-talking prosecutor Kathleen Marais. She doesn’t have much screen time but her South African Afrikaans-imbued accent isn’t half bad.
But really, it is Garion Dowds as Leon who delivers a striking, stand-out, and phenomenal performance. When I meet him for our interview he looks even younger than in the film. Piercing blue-grey eyes and blonde hair make him look even more like a child. He plays Leon with restraint, slowly peeling back layers to reveal a vulnerability that will pose viewers with a near impossible ethical dilemma. The message here is that we label those who commit horrific acts as ‘monsters’, because it’s easier than accepting that they are humans who did terrible things. Leon is at first stoic, but as John continues to push him, he finds is harder and harder to keep his emotions in check, to keep his face still, until finally, the truth in all its disturbing detail is revealed.
The poet Sylvia Plath asks, “Why do we electrocute men for murdering an individual and then pin a purple heart on them for mass slaughter of someone arbitrarily labelled ‘enemy’?” Just three years after this story takes place, the death penalty was put on hold until, in 1996, Nelson Mandela officially abolished it. The film forces the viewer to think differently about those whose job is death. What does it do to the psyche of a person who becomes the literal embodiment of death, the “destroyer of worlds” as referred to in Hindu scripture?
John’s brother-in-law, Pierre (Robert Hobbs), who fought in the Border War, tells him: “In a war, you don’t think of the other side as people. You shoot at uniforms, not men. The only thing worse than killing a stranger would be killing someone you know.”
This story controversially humanises a killer. There is little exploration of the lives of the men condemned to die, or the families of the victims who were slaughtered. The former is forgivable in the context of the film; the latter, however, a little less so. Two lines from a mother of one of the dead football fans don’t give enough expression to the pain Leon caused. The thing that detracts from the story is the courtroom procedural which breaks the flow. Less Law and Order is needed. Still, Shepherds and Butchers is a powerful exploration of the legacy of the death penalty in South Africa and its effects on those who accompanied people in their final moments. It’s hard to stomach but a necessary and important film.
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Cast: Steve Coogan, Garion Dowds, Andrea Riseborough, Eduan van Jaarsveldt, Deon Lotz
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 28 October 2016