The Harvesters (Die Stropers)

South Africa (2018) Dir. Etienne Kallos

Blood is thicker than water, a proverb asserting the bonds of family being unbreakable, might be true but there are no guarantees we won’t be irreparably hurt by a member of our own kin. Conversely, if we take the term “family” on a more nebulous level, we are leaving the door wide open for an external influence to upset the harmonious balance. 

In South Africa’s Free State, the Afrikaans white ethnic minority are found, a farming community with strong religious beliefs, and prevalent patriarchal attitudes. 15 year-old Janno (Brent Vermeulen), doesn’t fit this mould, though he tries by way of hiding his true feelings. One day, his deeply devout family to find they’ve taken in a street orphan Pieter (Alex van Dyk) from the city hoping the rural ways will “save” him.

Janno is told by his mother Marie (Juliana Venter) and father Jan (Morné Visser), that he and his three sisters must accept Pieter as their brother and help with his rehabilitation. Living on the streets, Pieter has seen it all and recognises the root of Janno’s hang ups and tries to help him be more open with himself, but ends up with a rival for Marie’s affections which tears Janno apart.

The Harvesters I believe is the first film from South Africa to feature on this site, yet as a European co-production, it only really distinguishes itself as an individual presentation through the main spoken language of Afrikaans, which is rooted in Dutch. However, it does offer an insight into the culture of the Afrikaans people, and remarkably shows a world in which interracial tensions don’t appear to exist as we might imagine them to.

Marking his debut, Etienne Kallos doesn’t seem interested in making political statements with his film, instead choosing to frame a tale about a repressed teenage boy unsure of his sexuality in an inherently homophobic culture within this setting. This is one take away from the story at least, it could also be a discussion on the toxic masculinity rife in this particular society, or an essay on the myopia of religious devotion.

As the central figures of this tale are Janno and Pieter, it is probably easier to categorise this as an LGBT film though this doesn’t indicate the depth of its full narrative. In fact, the first signs of any gay elements appear until a short while into the film and are subtly hinted; a rather clever device by Kallos to make this clearer is also mystifying at first but deserves credit for inventiveness.  

With almost no signs of modern technology or fashion featured for the longest period, the timeline for this story could have been anywhere in the last 40 years; it is only the arrival a recent car is shown that we find ourselves in the present day, confirmed later when Pieter and Janno sneak out to a party in town. The thumping techno music beats, pulsating lights, and cavorting drug addled teens is diametrically opposed to the staid, hymn singing, pious existence on the farm, a shock to both Janno and the viewer.

Shocks aplenty are in store for Janno, the least being that his usual guarded self is about to face the threat of a worldly interloper who can read him like a book, quick to discern which buttons to press, and make life hard for him. But first, Pieter needs to get the evil out of his own body, meaning uncompromising detox, struggles with nightmares, and  serious attitude adjustment.

Pieter makes it clear religion holds no truck with him, upsetting Janno but careful not to do the same with Marie, the only person in the house who protects him, hugs him, and genuinely treats him like her own son. Jan barks a lot at Pieter, but Marie will always stand by the lad, frustrating Jan to no end, in another sly dig about the aforementioned belief of masculinity as a virtue, when a hulking brute like Jan is forced to capitulate to a woman.

It takes a while for things to get going, spending a lot of time building up Pieter as the truculent outsider needing to adapt his ways to suit his new home, whilst quietly letting Janno’s jealousy simmer. In theory, good boy Janno shouldn’t have anything to worry about – he prays to God, works hard, and is polite and helpful to everyone; Pieter has had a rough life which he only survived by playing the game per the laws of the jungle, yet of the two he knows what he is and who he is.

Because he has no faith, Pieter can afford to succumb to whatever sexual direction he feels is the right one, and it does seem that he genuinely wants Janno to stop denying who he is and come out of the closet. Now, it becomes a question of who is the one that really needs saving – Pieter or Janno –  but I must reiterate, Pieter seems genuine.

Kallos does a great job in making the ambiguity of Pieter’s character so compelling, his unpredictability informs the curious nature of his sincerity. However, full credit goes to Alex van Dyk for living the character, a truly astute essaying that belies the fact this was his first acting role! This is also true of fellow newcomer Brent Vermeulen, imbuing Janno with the requisite fragility and doubt of a boy in crisis.

Rural South Africa, with its heaving farmlands, dancing corns fields, and inviting coastal inlets makes for a fascinating location when seen through the lens of cinematographer Michal Englert, whilst the use of natural light pays dividends during the big fire scene at the end.

For a debut effort, The Harvesters is a confident film that shows a promise in Kallos and a sign he has the tools to become a distinct voice in South African and world cinema. I hope this is also the case for the two excellent young leads as well.