The film takes place during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings between 1995 and 1996. The Afrikaner poet Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) is a South African broadcaster covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. While her husband remains supportive, her work causes friction with her parents and younger brother Boetie (Langley Kirkwood), who are struggling to come to terms with Black majority rule. Due to increasing crime and cattle rustling, Malan's family are uncertain about their place in post–Apartheid South Africa.
While attending a press conference in Cape Town, Anna meets up with her Black colleague, the sound engineer Dumi Mkhalipi (Menzi Ngubane). She also encounters the African American journalist Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), who has been sent by The Washington Post to interview the former South African Army Colonel De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), who has been accused of human rights violations. While initially hostile towards White South Africans particularly Afrikaners, Whitfield forges a working relationship with Anna and Dumi.
Anna, Dumi, and Langston travel the country covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's hearings. The hearings are predicated around the concepts of restorative justice and Ubuntu; the belief that a universal bond connects all humanity. The TRC involve victims testifying about their experiences and perpetrators confessing to their crimes in return for an offer of amnesty. While most of the perpetrators are White and victims are black, once hearing involves a group of black guerrillas who murdered members of a White farming family. Due to the African American experience with racism in the United States, Whitfield is initially dismissive of Ubuntu.
During the course of their work, Whitfield befriends Dumi and Anna. When their car breaks down in the gramadeolas, Anna and her colleagues are forced to spend the night together at the home of an Afrikaner farmer. Despite their philosophical differences, Anna and Whitfield come to develop romantic feelings for each other. Besides covering the TRC hearings, Whitfield also interviews De Jager, an unrepentant racist who claims that he was following orders but believes that he has been made a scapegoat by the South African government.
Frustrated with the Washington Post's reluctance to highlight the TRC hearings, Whitfield writes a sensationalist article laden with incendiary rhetoric. While the article is published in the front page of the Washington Post, Anna is furious and argues with Whitfield. The two later reconcile after Anna convinces him that not all Whites are guilty of the crimes of the Apartheid regime. Anna later introduces Whitfield to her parents, who help him to reevaluate his views of South African society. While interviewing De Jager, Whitfield strikes a deal with the former colonel to incriminate his superiors in return for a possible amnesty offer from the TRC.
Using De Jager's information, Langston and Anna discover a farm near Anna's family homestead which was used by the South African military to torture and kill African National Congress guerrillas. The two also discover the corpse of a former guerrilla. As a result of this discovery, De Jager is able to incriminate his superiors. However, his application for amnesty is rejected on the grounds that his actions were "disproportionate to the objective sort." Before being led away, Ruyter tells Anna to ask her brother.
When Anna confronts Boetie about his complicity in the tortures, Boetie commits suicide. Following the funeral, Anna's mother confesses to an extramarital affair with a Portuguese poet. This leads Anna to confess to her romantic affair with Langston to her husband. While initially angry, Anna's husband finds the power to forgive his wife. Anna and Langston depart on friendly terms. While Langston is driving with Dumi to visit his family, Dumi is killed by a gang of carjackers he had wronged earlier. This murder leads Langston to reflect on the importance of forgiveness. Meanwhile, Anne reflects on the sins of her people and pleads for the land to forgive then.
The postscript mentions that 21,8000 victims testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that 1,165 perpetrators received amnesty under the peace process.Juliette Binoche... Anna Malan
Samuel L. Jackson... Langston Whitfield
Brendan Gleeson... De Jager
Menzi Ngubane... Dumi Mkhalipi
Aletta Bezuidenhout... Elsa
Lionel Newton... Edward Morgan
Langley Kirkwood... Boetie
Owen Sejake... Reverend Mzondo
Charley Boorman... Adam Hartley
Filming took place in and around Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula. Capetonians and travellers familiar with the city will recognise several well-known land-marks co-opted to represent scenes within the film:The South African Museum, The Gardens, Cape Town
The Countryside and surrounds of Paarl and Malmesbury.
The Mt. Nelson Hotel
Locations in Stellenbosch.
The film made heavy use of distinguished South African actors and actresses of all backgrounds for both bit and prominent parts. In addition, authenticity was greater than many other productions both before and since through the use of actual furniture, fixtures, motor vehicles and many other touches to ensured that The Country of My Skull is a remarkably South African production.
Of further note is that the film spanned in virtually the entire country's fund of technical talent at the SABC and other film studios.
Nelson Mandela liked the film, and provided producers with a quote for promotion of the film:
"A beautiful and important film about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It will engage and influence not only South Africans, but people all over the world concerned with the great questions of human reconciliation, forgiveness, and tolerance."
While the film was thought to have its "heart and politics in the right place", the Washington Post described it as a "formula romance", in which Binoche fails at the Afrikaans accent and Jackson's character lacks credibility as a Post reporter. The film also received much criticism for the inclusion of a love affair, and its depiction of black South Africans.
Berlin Film Festival 2004Winner of Diamond Cinema for Peace Award 2004.