As protests over gangsterism, drug trafficking, and a lack of social and community services in the poorer areas of Cape Town continue to grow, this film becomes an apt artistic commentary on the social ills faced by too many in South Africa. (The writer saw this film with his wife, and her comments are interwoven with this review, marked RJS. She knows the communities like the one portrayed in the film far better than most.)
Over the years, we’ve had a chance to see a fair number of South African films, reaching back to some of the “Jim comes to Joburg”-style stories; to much of what Jamie Uys created over the years, from Dingaka to The Gods Must Be Crazy; then on to that hopeful 1991 film, Taxi to Soweto; and then on to still more recent films such as Of Good Report, Tsotsi, and Krotoa.
But the newest South African film on circuit, Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, is tautly directed by Daryne Joshua from a script by Amy Jeptha, and based on contemporary accounts. And it seems different from almost every other previous South African film I am aware of. In brief, it profiles the increasingly horrific circumstances of the Pakkies family as their youngest son, Abie (Jarrid Geduld), becomes a tik (crystal methamphetamine) addict, and how he nearly destroys his family’s precarious hold on stability and normality. All of this plays out in the midst of the growing social and economic devastation that spirals out from the tik epidemic that haunts Cape Town communities like Lavender Hill.
Crystal meth, and now opioids, are similarly destroying families and communities in the US and elsewhere, so it is not as if this is a uniquely South African phenomenon, but this film is an authentically South African textured one. And in earlier eras, the drug of choice in the Cape was more usually cheap alcohol, perhaps a holdover from the infamous dop (tot) system – along with the fact it was probably harder to obtain more exotic drugs in the past until South Africa’s borders became more porous. But now, tik has devastated far too many.
Importantly, save for a brief epilogue that comes after the court judgment as Ellen Pakkies is carrying out her community service duties in lieu of prison time by speaking to church and other groups about drug addiction, and how it destroys family life, the film is surprisingly unpedantic. There is little preaching about the evils of drug addiction, save from people whose jobs are in mental health or drug rehabilitation and who obviously must talk about addiction on camera. There is really no need for more, since the impacts are clear enough, just from the action that does happen on screen.
But the film also depicts Abie’s mother, Ellen’s own blighted childhood, in parallel flashbacks, as both stories unfold until Ellen (Jill Levenberg), in an effort to reach some sort of end point in her torment, finally strangles her son while he sleeps off yet another night of drug taking. As the consulting psychologist brought into the case to aid her defence attorney explains how she sought to bring an end to her agonies, she had disassociated herself from her actual act and carried out the killing of her child – it freed him from his torments, just as it released her from her own agonies.
The film itself actually begins as she confesses her crime and enters into the police and judicial system to face her punishment. Everything else about this story, her son’s life, her own, her sessions with a court-appointed psychologist (Russell Savadier), her attorney’s (Chris Brink) efforts to save her, are all played out through those flashbacks until the storylines effectively converge at the moment of her sentencing by the magistrate (Elsa Klink).
RJS: The focus of the story was clearly for me on the final judgment of Ellen by the court as a woman who represents a most typical case of one who, despite the best efforts and intentions of her determinedly following every available socially and bureaucratically prescribed means of obtaining help for her son, finds herself seemingly without recourse, but who then takes matters into her own hands and then accepts that she should be jailed and pay for the act.
Ellen, in her defence, explains her actions and efforts. An implied indictment against every institutional and medical abandonment of her son and her family becomes clear to the judge in this testimony.
In real life, as with the film, Ellen Pakkies was sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service, rather than prison time, on the argument, accepted by the magistrate, that Ellen had finally run out of “options” in an increasingly desperate effort to reconcile her love for her son with the equally desperate need to find some way out of this nightmarish cul de sac.
RJS: Ellen, being based on factual events, and acted on location at the real site of this true family tragedy, could well have been sensationalised and over dramatised as a traumatic, soul distancing movie. Yet the team of television actors and the movie’s director thankfully did not fall prey to stereotyping the “forced removal” Mitchells Plain community which encases the life drama.
Unlike so many films – South African and foreign – that attempt to portray the desperateness of those of “The Lower Depths” through a kind of easy reliance on pat stereotypes, hyped exaggeration, or even a kind of wicked gallows humour, Ellen almost always stays understated. Your mind has to do some work while you watch it.
RJS: Fortunately for Ellen Pakkies, an interested lawyer who seems familiar with the typical circumstance endured in places like Mitchells Plain, takes on her case at no cost. This kind of “gift” is an uncommon godsend for the impoverished communities. The actor discreetly reveals the reason for his empathy in the subtle switches he makes through his dialect and accent switches.
There is no picturesque poverty in Ellen. The grittiness is real, right down to a cowering, mongrel dog or two, the refuse and blowing trash, and the run-down greyness of the stolid apartment blocks of Lavender Hill that are eerily reminiscent of what Stalin’s architects had inflicted on Eastern Europe. In fact, a marvellous cinematic moment – baleful with its message – comes as the camera pulls back and back and back, until we see what looks like the entirety of the Cape Flats arrayed before us and with Table Mountain far into the distance. It says, in effect, that there are a million more stories out there, each terrible in their own way. This is only one of them.
In Ellen, Odneal Pakkies, Ellen’s husband, an honest, hardworking man, comes home at the end of the day; his face is drawn; his skin is smudged, as he comes home wearily. His feet obviously hurt, even if his dignity – just barely – remains largely intact. But he can not save his family from this disaster.
This landscape has no scenes of singing groups harmonising under the street lights, no funky dance scenes suddenly erupting out of nowhere, nor any hip hop or rap groups showing off the hidden talents of that so-called underclass (even if there is one brief moment of familial tenderness when Abie performs a half finished bit of hip hop he has composed to his appreciative mother). Instead of a bright future, there are just the small dreams of Abie’s breakout moment for one rap song; a father, Odneal (Elton Landrew) who, day after day, goes off to a mind-numbing job as a parking lot attendant, thanking drivers over and over for his modest tips; and a mother who just wants to hold everything together.
RJS: Ellen Pakkies, a patient, responsible, God-fearing woman who eventually murders her own son in desperation, following his endangerment of family and self as a result of addiction to tik, is depicted with profound empathy by a maternal characterisation of Jill Levenberg in this fine South African movie.
The Pakkies family’s home has just the right mix of knick knacks on cupboards and the walls, extension cord on top of extension cord. There is the cramped look of spaces that have a bit too much worn furniture squeezed into too-small rooms; and the curtains and beaded room dividers separate a bedroom from a front room even if privacy is not much in evidence.
As a result, it is not much of a surprise to learn the film was made on location in the Lavender Hill area – with its interiors shot in an actual Lavender Hill home. The verisimilitude of the film’s settings in Lavender Hill, the holding cells, police offices, and the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court all show clearly throughout the entire film and there is no prettiness or polished-ness to any of these settings. The graffiti on the walls of the holding cells look worn and ancient, and the petty theft among the awaiting-trial prisoners has no gratuitousness, just callousness.
I hadn’t realised this before, but a film with subtitles in which the viewer only understands a bit of the original spoken language (this film is largely in the Kaapse Afrikaans idiom, with a bit of more formal Afrikaans from officialdom on occasion, and some English when Ellen must interact with her lawyer or the psychologist) forces the audience to watch the acting closely for insights about the characters’ motivations and intentions, rather than simply falling back on the dialogue. The viewer must read facial expressions, the shrug of a shoulder, the way someone looks at or away from someone else, to read intentions. In a way, it is liberating for the viewer, because it actually draws one closer to the actors and the story they must deliver, and away from efforts to rely on the dialogue. Perhaps it is something like the way audiences used to connect with silent films and how the actors would have to convey so much with a gesture.
In fact, the entire cast offers their characters with a sense of authenticity that makes you forget their frequent appearances on television or in live theatre. They do much more than just act their parts; they inhabit them. The stricken look on Ellen Pakkies’ face, seen through the bars in the holding cells, gives the audience much more than mere words could do. She has now accepted and fully understands just how far she has come from being a loving mother, and just how much her life will never, ever, come close to being the same as it was before her act.
One small quibble with the film is the pacing of Abie’s descent into addiction. To this viewer at least, it seemed as if was the plot driving the destruction of his personality, triggered by the revelation of a painful family secret, the resulting fight with fellow students, and the death of a girl friend, apparently to drugs, than organically. Not overyone in Abie’s world is lost to tik, after all. Of course such events can become the precipitating triggers for a descent into addiction, but life is not always that simple and direct. But this is a small matter in what is otherwise a cinematic event that deserves wide audiences in South Africa and abroad, as well as accolades from film festivals wherever it may be shown.
RJS: The movie leaves one, days later, remembering, understanding and thinking of the many mothers like Ellen and sons at risk like Abie, and fathers like Odneal who spend their lives swimming in tides of despair and the entrapment of circumstance and yet must somehow create life- giving joy. DM