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Review: Free State

Deur Jaco Lotriet

Falling in love is something Magical. Something you can’t control. It just happens.

 The year is 1979. The milieu, Apartheid South Africa, centred in the picturesque eastern Free State. On a dusty rural road between Memel and Newcastle, set amongst beautiful rolling green hills in the background, we meet open minded Afrikaner girl and law student, Jeanette. Here, during a random act of kindness, a chance meeting with an attractive Indian man Ravi, sets the scene which unfolds into an endearing story that sparks a forbidden love affair with dire consequences. This is the story of feature film, Free State.

Andrew Govender and Nicola Breytenbach during the Premiere of Free State

Andrew Govender and Nicola Breytenbach during the Premiere of Free State

Initially the movie poster, followed by the opening credits of the film, struck a somewhat dissonant chord. The striking placard, adorned in bright golden colours, somehow conjured up images of a Bollywood production but in sharp contrast, the opening credits displayed the words ‘1979, Apartheid South Africa’. My heart sank and I swallowed hard, as my mind started to feel dazed and confused. How would the producers of this film manage to merge a downplayed apartheid theme with the vibrancy of a Bollywood production?

The answer is quite simple. They don’t. While the apartheid theme is crucial to the thread of the story, it is a continuing undertone, rather than the main theme. A credible team of Indian producers from Indian production company Parnam Entertainment, together with film team Utkarsh Entertainment, under the able leadership of producer Rajiv Terwadkar, collaborated with South Africa’s Bosbok Ses Films to bring this movie to life. Astounding, but be under no illusions – this is not a Bollywood film.

Three worlds-apart families are portrayed in Free State; each very divergent in their cultural nature and yet we find a unique South African authenticity to them that is relatable, forming a cohesiveness within the storyline. Worthy of mention are the subtleties of two different cultures, Indian and Afrikaner, brought to the fore by the cunning use of humour that elicits an outburst of occasional laughter from the audience. The predicament of the parent-child relationship is highlighted within the families when they are confronted by the ripple effect of the two characters’ interracial love for each other.

Nicola Breytenbach plays Jeanette in Free State

Nicola Breytenbach plays Jeanette in Free State

Multi-award winning Sallas de Jager, wrote and directed the film that stars accomplished, award-winning actors to the likes of Leleti Khumalo of Sarafina fame, Deon Lotz, who starred in Roepman and Skoonheid and Paul Eihlers from Die Ontwaking. Ballade vir ‘n Enkeling and Wolwedans in die Skemer’s Rolanda Marais also makes her appearance in Free State alongside Hemali Juta Pillay, who featured in a supporting role on U.S. TV series Homeland and Bollywood star Mangesh Desai, who makes his S.A. debut performance.

These are but a few actors in the ensemble cast that contribute substantially to the intricately constructed storyline, supporting the main characters. Jeanette is played by former supermodel Nicola Breytenbach and former Mr. South Africa and Top Billing presenter, Andrew Govender, steps into the shoes of Ravi.

The story’s plot points are carefully interwoven into cultural expectations. There is however, nothing that appears on-screen that suggests hatred between races, apart from the defiantly confrontational security police of the day that merely serves as a sub-diversion. The love scenes between Jeannette and Ravi could be considered as being implied, rather than passionate and by no means repetitive… yet one senses the electrifying, mutual adoration they feel for each other, displayed beautifully on screen.

Rajiv Terwadkar, Producer, Andrew Govender, Nicola Breytenbach and Tom Marais, cinematographer of Free State

Rajiv Terwadkar, Producer, Andrew Govender, Nicola Breytenbach and Tom Marais, cinematographer of Free State

Breytenbach’s portrayal of Jeanette is aesthetically pleasing. Her charm and beauty commands a screen presence that leaves your eyes fixated on her. She seems to effortlessly carry the picture through her calm and elegant demeanour. Equally pleasing on the eye is Govender, whose almost naïve and boy-like appeal captivates the audience right from his first intro. His sincere, selfless and soft-spoken nature is reassuring and comforting, maybe even too much so. He feels like a close friend. Together, the individual portrayals of their respective characters culminates into a blossoming love that transcends the sanctions imposed by society, governments, religion and even family. This is no cheesy sweet romantic love story, as the intriguing real life elements of modern South Africa are captured in the blind, anticipating minds of the movie viewer.


Family, however, is key to this heart-warming tale.  A well deserving and justified nod needs to go to Deon Lotz as the reverend Gideon, Jeanette’s father. In recent months, Lotz showcased his talent in features like Faan se trein, ‘n Pawpaw vir my Darling and Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. Together with Ravi’s nagging, but equally doting mother, Chatura, interpreted by Hemali Juta Pillay, both Lotz and Juta embodied the unconditional lovingness, compassion and care that family is all about. This aspect enhances the relatable nature of Free State even further, especially in a South African context.

No picture of this scope would be complete without certain behind-the-scenes contributions of the production team. Of particular mention is multiple SAMA nominee and musician Dawie de Jager, whose score was identifiable through its staccato inspired compositions and arrangements. Excerpts from the classic tune Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ 1883 opera Lakmé, lent a flowing, consoling touch to the film. Cinematographer Tom Marais, together with Production Designer Waldemar Coetsee and line producer Danie Bester, all accredited SAFTA winners, have managed to showcase one of the most beautiful parts of our country, making the viewer feel all the more proud, knowing this film’s exposure is so expansive on the international arena.  Accolades for Free State include the 13th Chennai International Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival held in Los Angeles, U.S.A, Luxor African Film Festival, with an ever growing list.

This Shakespearean-inspired tragedy of undying love certainly deserves all the raves and reviews that will come its way and will leave you feeling inspired.

Free State is a proudly kykNet film releasing nationally, on Freedom Day, 27 April 2016.

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