With his feature writing-directing debut, Greek-South African filmmaker Etienne Kallos takes a subtle but sharply pointed look into Afrikaans culture as it grapples with larger social shifts. Within this, The Harvesters (Die Stropers) explores the thorny issue of identity and sexuality in a provocative and darkly moving way. The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival and was in competition at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
The story centres on 15-year-old Janno (Brent Vermeulen), the adopted son of a childless Afrikaans farming couple, Jan and Marie (Morne Visser and Juliana Venter), who are also raising her late sister’s two young daughters. As Janno learns the ropes around the farm, herding cattle and preparing for the corn harvest, his parents take in another teen boy, 13-year-old Pieter (Alex van Dyk), a troubled drug addict. As he goes through withdrawal, Janno takes him under his wing, introducing him to the farm, the local prayer group and the church boys’ rugby club. But Pieter is far more worldly than Janno, and instantly spots the fact that Janno has a crush on his best friend. Pieter also introduces Janno to the lively nearby black community, and reveals that he has been selling his body to local men for cash. Janno finds this shocking, but he’s also envious.
None of this plays out in an obvious way, as Kallos keeps the film’s tone evocative, focussing on Janno’s emotional rather than physical journey. This means that the film can be somewhat elusive at times, but there’s never a moment when we can’t vividly understand how Janno is feeling: threatened by Pieter’s savvy attitude, excited by the possibility of exploring his sexuality, terrified that Pieter might reveal his secret to his devoutly religious parents and friends. The rivalry between these boys adds a Cain and Abel vibe to the film, augmented by the expansive rural locations. Michal Englert’s spectacular cinematography captures the golden fields and dramatic geography just as sharply as it hones in on the internal thoughts of the characters.
Vermeulen gives a belter of a performance, never overplaying Janno’s inner turmoil. Everything he thinks and feels plays across his entire body, most notably in the film’s most potent scene as he has a confrontation and connection with Pieter. Even photographed from behind, we know exactly how he is reacting to this moment. He also develops superb push-and-pull chemistry with van Dyk, a street smart kid who fully understands that religion has brainwashed this family, but plays along out of a need to survive. As their adoptive parents, Visser and Venter also have some surprisingly nuanced scenes, reacting very differently to everything that happens around their sons.
This is a fascinating story about a society in which being gay is transgressive and, frankly, unthinkable. As orphans, these boys are already outsiders, so being sent to “man camp” to learn the community rules only stirs their desires even more. Kallos’ sensitive filmmaking brings the story and themes to life in a way that’s never pushy, letting them roll in ways that are both gentle and prickly, challenging the audience to react to a culture in which bigotry is so ingrained that no one talks about it. In other words, this is a film that will resonate around the world.