After the end of Apartheid in South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up as a court-like body that would hear the stories of victims of violence, while perpetrators of violence could also provide testimony and ask for amnesty from prosecution. The idea was to put the past behind and move forward, but only by fully acknowledging the atrocities of the past. I think of what happened when Mary Tudor returned the Catholics to the English throne and the blood purge that took place and how her sister Elizabeth Tudor refused to return the bloody favor when she became Queen. Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon also comes to mind, and the desire to end the nightmare and move on. The TRC had the virtue of forgiving, but not forgetting, providing of course that people admitted their crimes, otherwise they would still be liable for prosecution and punishment.
"Red Dust" is one of several films that have been made about the work of the TRC, which includes the 2000 documentary "Long Night's Journey Into Day." It is important that we understand there are other films about the TRC out there because the story of "Red Dust" is really a variation on the main theme and not a direct look at what happened with the TRC in South Africa. In 2004 there was South African film "Forgiveness" about a disgraced ex-cop seeking forgiveness from the family of an activist he killed, "Country of My Skull" had Samuel L. Jackson as an American reporter looking into the case of the most notorious torturer in the South African police, and "Zulu Love Letter" is about a journalist who has to face the demons of her past because of these public hearing.
In director Tom Hooper's film the twist is that when police officer Dirk Hendricks (Jamie Bartlett) files for amnesty for brutally beating and torturing Alex Mpondo (Chiwetel Enjiofor) for a month, although his victim refuses the label. Mpondo has become a member of parliament and apparently a rising political star who shows up only because he wants to find out what happened to Steve Sizela (Loyiso Gxwala), who was arrested at the same time and was never seen again even though the police claim he was released. Mpondo's legal counsel is a New York district attorney, Sarah Bascant (Hilary Swank), a South African ex-pat who once spent in a night in prison when she was a teenager for dating a black boy. The problem is that if Hendricks is pushed too far he has some information that can kill Mpondo's political career.
Or at least he thinks that it can and one of the contrivances of this story is that it takes Mpondo a while to figure out that how to disprove what Hendricks has to say when he finally pulls out his trump card. Mpondo does get to the same point, but he takes the long way round to get there. Enjiofor plays the pivotal character in the drama, haunted by both his memories of what happened and the gaps in that memory as well. Swank appears to be in the film to give it a recognizable name, always good for raising funding on a movie that is going to touch nerves and not resemble in any way shape or form a feel good movie, but her character is fairly pedestrian even with her ties to this past. Still there is enough here of value to at least round up on "Red Dust," and there is a moment at the end that makes it clear that the TRC was a two-sided sword.