Proteus (2003)

JOHN GREYSON, JACK LEWIS

Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBB.5

Canada/South Africa, 2003.  .  Story by Jack Lewis, Screenplay by John Greyson, Jack Lewis.  Cinematography by .  Produced by .  Music by , .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by .  Toronto International Film Festival 2003.  

A black South African cattle herder named Claas Blank () in 1785 tries to take back livestock that was seized by white settlers. For this, he is sentenced to ten years on Robben Island, the same prison where Nelson Mandela would serve his sentence over a century later. While there he makes the acquaintance of Scottish plant biologist Virgil Niven (), who runs the prison while studying the Sugarbush flower for a forthcoming book he is writing on it (and from where the film gets its title). Blank also begins an affair with Dutch sailor Rijkhaart Jacobz (), a years-long relationship that starts out aggressively sexual and grows more affectionate and loving as the years pass, resulting in a serious sacrifice when the two of them are brought to trial for their relationship. The screenplay for the film was adapted by directors John Greyson (of Canada) and Jack Lewis (of South Africa) from the original transcripts of the trial, the history of which is hardly known in South Africa today but is an enlightening look at the country’s historical attitude towards racial and sexual politics. The writing sometimes slurs a bit too quickly over finer points of past events, which may leave some audience members occasionally confused, but for the most part it is enjoyable and affecting. The slightly ridiculous directorial flourish of having the film take place both in 1785 and 1965 when the Sugarbush was officially named the flower of South Africa is unfortunately useless (the odd miniskirt and barbed wire fence appears), but the actual romance between the two leads is so palpable and mesmerizing that many criticisms fall quite easily by the wayside. A notable entry in the human rights film canon, and an interesting lesson in historical fact.

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