MOVIES rarely deal with openly political subjects, and when they do, it's rarely with as much dramatic power as filmmakers Chris Menges and Shawn Slovo have given ``A World Apart,'' which opened last Friday in American theaters. The plot of the movie seems incredible at times. Yet it's based on events that actually happened to Slovo's mother, Ruth First, a South African who took a stand against apartheid in the early 1960s. At the recent Cannes Film Festival in France, no movie had a more enthusiastic reception than ``A World Apart,'' which details the political struggles - and the domestic problems - of Mrs. First and her family. Audiences cheered it, and the festival jury gave its ``best actress'' prize to three of its stars: American actress Barbara Hershey, English teen-ager Jodhi May, and South African newcomer Linda Mvusi. Directed by Mr. Menges from a screenplay by Ms. Slovo, the film also received a ``special grand prize'' in recognition of its general excellence.
Although it's very much a political story, ``A World Apart'' is also a family drama, drawn from the screenwriter's memory of things that took place in her own household. Both her parents were fierce enemies of apartheid, and this had strong consequences for her as a child - especially when her father went into exile and her mother became the first white woman arrested under South Africa's notorious 90-Day Detention Act. Later her mother was murdered (by a parcel bomb in 1982) for her human rights activities, although the film ends before that part of her story is reached.
Excising the self-pity
Slovo says it took several rewrites of the screenplay before she struck just the right balance between the movie's political content and the personal story of Molly, her 13-year-old alter ego on the screen.
``The first drafts of the script were written in the aftermath of my mother's assassination,'' says the writer, ``so they were messy and self-pitying. Molly, the 13-year-old, is the victim. That was the biggest struggle for me. It took almost a year before I could show [the screenplay] to the world. I had my own support system - I was at the National Film School in England, and I had family and friends who would read the stuff. But it took me about five drafts to work through the personal-anguish thing. I objectified it to a state where I felt I could live with it ... and where I thought it would be accessible to audiences.''
Films can influence public opinion
Screenwriter Slovo feels that telling a story - even the deeply personal story of her mother's struggle for justice - is only one function her movie has to fulfill. Another is to shed new light on apartheid and the issues that swirl around it - as much today as in the 1960s, when the film's events take place. She feels that movies can make a difference in public opinion when they add their impact to other voices that are also being heard in a culture. She hopes ``A World Apart'' will join the company of earlier politically minded films she admires, including ``Z'' and ``The Battle of Algiers,'' and as the more recent ``Under Fire'' and ``Missing.''
``I have been changed by what I've seen and what I've read,'' she says, speaking of her own exposure to politically relevant films and books. ``We're not under any illusions that [``A World Apart''] is going to change the situation in South Africa, but we hope it will focus people's attention - in the West - on the situation. I think the film raises a lot of questions, which is part of what film is about.''
Slovo adds, however, that ``A World Apart'' doesn't exhaust the supply of South African stories that need telling. ``There's still the black story to be told,'' she says, ``from the black point of view.''
She acknowledges that ``Cry Freedom,'' the recent Richard Attenborough film about black martyr Steve Biko, tried to address South African problems from a black perspective. But she notes (as many critics have) that it gives more attention to the adventures of Biko's white friend, editor Donald Woods, than to Biko himself. ``Because of the disparity and the imbalance,'' says Slovo, ``the Biko part appears as a mere cipher. ... So there's still that to be done.''
``A World Apart'' was directed by British filmmaker Chris Menges, who has become best known as the cinematographer of such respected movies as ``The Killing Fields'' and ``Local Hero.'' He has also worked on many documentaries, including one - made for the British Broadcasting Corporation - about South African racial conflicts.
In making his first fiction film as a director, Mr. Menges was concerned that even the smallest details have a look and feel that would lend realism to the movie as a whole - which is why he decided to shoot it in Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean city near the South African border.
``There are many refugees, both black and white, living in Bulawayo,'' the director says. ``It's a very small city, a backwater from the '60s; so it stood in very well for suburban Johannesburg of '63. And because of the refugees, there were many people there who could make sure the film was as accurate as possible.''
When he speaks of accuracy, director Menges means not only the places and objects we see on the screen, but a whole atmosphere of authenticity that gives the film much of its power - and which is closely related to the movie's southern African locations.
``I couldn't have done it anywhere else but in a front-line state,'' Menges says. ``All the front-line states are under pressure from South Africa, so they're all experiencing - at this moment - what the film's about, which is the struggle for democracy. When the film has come and gone, it's the issues of the film that matter. That's what counts!''
Something else that counts, the filmmakers agree, is complying with economic and cultural sanctions against South Africa.
Whatever the South African censors think about ``A World Apart,'' the movie won't be seen by South African audiences - because it won't be offered for sale to distributors in that country.
David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.