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Movie Review: Shepherds and Butchers


Shepherds and Butchers is a South African courtroom drama, directed by Oliver Schmitz and based on the award-winning novel by Chris Marnewick. The story follows Johan Webber, a defence attorney, who takes on the controversial case of Leon Labuschagne, a young prison warden, who is charged with killing several black men in 1987. Marnewick, an advocate in Durban, delivers a powerful retelling of this capital punishment court case, which is based on actual events.

The film adaptation stars Steve Coogan, who is best known for Philomena, Andrea Riseborough, who starred in Shadow Dancer and South African actor Garion Dowds as Labuschagne. Coogan has a rich comedy background, but like many comic actors, has an equally layered dramatic depth. He brings a fortitude and resilience to the role of Johan Webber, a character which while underdeveloped, carries clout. Riseborough gets a handle on the South African accent and goes head-to-head with Coogan as a bullish and hardened advocate. If Coogan is the heart and Riseborough is the mind, then Dowds is the soul of this powerful drama. While the character clouds proceedings, we see the events unfold through his eyes and Dowds gives the manchild a vulnerability, which helps foster empathy.

The tension lies in Labuschagne's unwillingness to co-operate as we try to make sense of the debacle. He's been charged with a multiple homicide in what appears to be an open-and-shut case, but his fragility makes it difficult to imagine the character carrying out the disturbing acts he stands accused of. As we wrestle with our convictions and prejudices, we're given a behind-the-scenes tour of the horrendous state-sanctioned executions from death row. While important to plumb the shock value to get inside the mind of the accused, this harrowing depiction of hangings is intense, graphic and not for sensitive viewers.

Shepherds and Butchers

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Schmitz is best known for Life, Above All, arguably the greatest South African drama. The racial oppression and social issues of 1987 become powerful in their subliminal treatment, much like To Kill A Mockingbird. The overtly white cast and accurate production design foists us into the turmoil of the justice system of the time. Watching from this retrospective standpoint, heightens the underlying tension and stacks even more weight against the defence as we're persuaded to feel sympathy for a "white psycho", who appears to have carried out a racially-motivated killing. Schmitz may not have a character-driven screenplay to leverage, but summons power through the earnest performances, the heartbreaking visuals and gripping true story.

Shepherds and Butchers isn't in the same league as To Kill a Mockingbird, Dead Man Walking or even A Time to Kill, but like The Devil's Knot, delivers thought-provoking drama and a powerful visual testament of a time we'd prefer to forget. We may not engage or identify enough with the characters to be fully immersed in the story, but from the nature of the harrowing imagery and socio-political ramifications, it's safer to watch from the back of the courtroom.

The bottom line: Unsettling