Growing Up in South Africa

A World Apart

Written by Shawn Slovo

Directed by Chris Menges

At the USA Harvard Square

IN 1963, the South African government passed a law allowing authorities to hold people in prison for 90 days without being charged. Ruth First, a liberal journalist whose husband was a major figure in the African National Congress (ANC), was the first white woman arrested under the act, and it is her story and that of her family that A World Apart tells--although the credits contain the ironic disclaimer that the film's characters are not based on any person, living or dead.


The film chronicles the life of "Diana Roth" from before her internment to her release from prison under house arrest. Filled with scenes of brutal police questionings that have become so familiar to movie audiences that they have lost their shock, the film is also a vivid depiction of Roth's inner struggle.

Barbara Hershey, whose face and mannerisms are reminiscent of Jane Fonda's, plays Roth as a woman torn between her convictions and her family. It's the old story of the working woman--how to juggle career and children satisfactorily--but with a twist. This mother has to contend with violent forces beyond her control.

Hershey's performance captures Roth's dilemma with the blend of severity and tenderness it deserves. When she is arrested and refuses to look back as her child cries, "Mommy, don't go," the viewer knows it is only because she refuses to show she can be beaten. Arch in the interrogation scenes, convincing as a professional and warm in relations with family members, Hershey's Roth only marginally overdoses on the emotional.

Her performance is matched by that of Jodhi May, who plays the oldest child, Molly. May's Molly is a pouty, stubborn child who feels her mother's attachment to the anti-apartheid movement deprives her of her mother's attention. May cries and stomps and yells at police in a way that suggests a true mother-daughter likeness between her and Hershey.

Molly's "coming of age" is at least as important to the film as its didactic purpose (it was filmed in Zambia, where the ANC has its headquarters), and it certainly fleshes out the sometimes monotonous prison scenes. Not that the viewer ever feels the film is an adaptation of Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch; it's never dull. But it does sparkle more when it's scrutinizing the Roth family than when it's ridiculing the Afrikaner police inspector.

COMPARISONS between A World Apart and Cry Freedom, Richard Attenborough's recent film about journalist Donald Woods' scrape with the South African government, are inevitable. The two films are, in fact, quite similar, although A World Apart had the misfortune to be released second. Many question the merit of making films about South Africa that focus on white liberals. Yet with A World Apart, this approach seems justified, not because First's life is more heroic than those of Black leaders, but because her family's lifestyle perfectly parallels that of middle class Americans. And since the film centers on the family and its break-up under strain, it can relate to an American audience in a way that a movie about people of a different culture and lifestyle might not.

But where A World Apart tries to be frank, Cry Freedom preferred to glorify its characters and tint them with melodrama. The values of middle class living were not questioned, and the relationship between the family and its Black servants was on a more monetary than emotional basis (e.g., the Woods leave money for the servants when they flee). It treated the escape from South Africa as an espionage thriller would, not as a struggle to leave a repressive regime. The film failed precisely because it sympathized totally with its characters and was unable to be critical of them.

A World Apart is refreshingly different because it resists, for the most part, the impulse to strike out what might be better left unsaid (although it does gloss over the Firsts' communist sympathies). Rather, it aims at realism, insofar as it doesn't omit family fights, broken friendships or even Diana's attempted suicide. And it succeeds because it is not a blanket statement about injustice and racism; it is about the lives of its characters. It is as much, if not more, about the relationship between mother and child than about the conflict between liberal journalist and apartheid-supporting police officials. Nor does it present an escape like the one in Cry Freedom that, while justifiable in reality, is suspect in the film because it praises running away from oppression.

A World Apart ends tragically. But the ending is not a statement of futility. It is an appeal with bite, pleading that South Africa not be forgotten 25 years later, since conditions have not improved.