The belief system of an Afrikaans teenager is put to the test in The Harvesters, an austere drama that is heavy on mood but light on genuine tension. While boasting stunning scenery and a great sense of locale, the dramatic element of the film is too inert to give it any real lasting power.
Set in the farmlands of contemporary South Africa, The Harvesters depicts a white Afrikaans family in the midst of a country going through a deep cultural change. This is a deeply religious rural family, proud of their traditions and wary of outsiders. They pray when they wake up, pray before they eat, and pray before they go to bed, constantly thanking God for what they have as well as asking him kindly to protect their farm. They are very serious, rarely seen laughing or even engaging in an extended conversation.
Our protagonist is Janno (Brent Vermeulen), an everyday teenager who likes to play rugby with his friends. He has always lived on the farm, and never known any life different from this. The relative serenity is disrupted by Pieter (Alex van Dyk), a drug-addicted kid his parents found abandoned in the streets that they have adopted. As a white child, they feel a certain duty of protection towards him from the horrors of the outside world. Pieter has an air of Heathcliff about him; wild, rugged and mysterious, he challenges the traditions of the land in a brusque way, smoking cigarettes, refusing to pray, and worst of all, talking to black people. In representing the outside world, he troubles Janno by his very presence. Very much a mommy’s boy, Janno is worried that Pieter will soon replace him as their favourite.
The maternal aspect and worries about the family’s legacy represent the Afrikaans’ white anxiety that their way of life is ending. With farmers being murdered in what is perceived to be racial cleansing, this wider threat gives the film an ominous undertone that is never really delivered upon. Nevertheless, the director must be given credit for sympathetically portraying the racially-based problems of white people while refusing to portray them solely as victims or relying on negative stereotypes of black people. Instead, with only one speaking role of colour (the grandfather’s maid) this is a mostly internal affair, focusing on these changes within the white community itself.
Perhaps more could’ve been done to investigate these knotty contradictions of race and power. One intriguing scene contrasts the high-tech combine harvesters of the whites as black women toil in the nearby land by hand. While what is going on in South Africa is a complete atrocity — something that disproportionately affects white farmers — this brief moment highlights the privilege the white people who inherited the land have. Yet, this remains mostly subtext; The Harvesters could’ve been more intriguing were it willing to tease these contradictions out. It ends up asa skilfully made work, but although intriguing in its themes, it never does enough to get us invested in its characters.
The film’s style and surrounding landscape are used to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The aridness of the land represents the lack of options for these people to develop a legacy, and the cinematography seems to stress this — constantly shown in twilight colours, everything feels like it’s in its final days. The Harvesters looks and feels like a powerful fable; yet when it comes down to connecting this aesthetic with a genuinely compelling tale, it sadly comes up short.