A World Apart is a 1988 film based on the life of Ruth First, the South African anti-apartheid activist and scholar who was one of 156 Congress Alliance members found guilty in the treason trials of the late 1950s and early 60s. She became the first white woman detained under the 90 day detention law, serving a total of 117 days in isolation and without charge. Following her release, she went into exile, initially in the UK, before taking a university post in Mozambique, where she was killed by a parcel bomb addressed specifically to her in 1982.
The real Ruth First,
re-enacting her incarceration for Jack Gold's BBC film 90 Days
The film was written by First's daughter Shawn Slovo and is an autobiographical account from her point of view, depicting a thinly fictionalised First as Diana Roth (played by Barbara Hershey) and Slovo herself as the eldest daughter Molly (a remarkable debut from the young Jodhi May)
Mixing the personal and the political, debut director Chris Menges (cinematographer on Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields and The Mission) delivers a film that in some ways is reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird. Young Molly's life is depicted as an affluent but open minded as befits her upbringing; she attends ballet classes, a good school and does not see race as an issue. She visibly baulks at one of her young friend's demands for a servant's attention with the loaded cry of "Boy!" and is quick to point out that that is not his name and she is shown to treat the families own servants as friends. In focusing largely from Molly's point of view, the film depicts her parents 'treasonous' activities as something that slowly impacts on her life - friends start to shun her, invites to parties don't reach her, she becomes targeted at school. It is these subtle changes that show how perversely placid life in the horrors of Apartheid could actually be. Granted, in telling the story from a white perspective the film may - like many of its contemporaries from the time - sideline the potential to depict first hand the actual hardships and intolerance of such a brutal regime from the eyes of its black characters, but it still manages to pack a surprisingly hefty punch from its 'smaller' perspective, aided immeasurably by May's talented beyond her years performance in which hurt and rejection is all too palpably depicted upon her fresh young face.
In depicting her mother, Solvo paints a picture of someone who was dutiful but occasionally lacking in the necessary maternal focus expected towards children. This is a woman for whom the injustices around her came first, perhaps to the sometime detriment of her home life, and Barbara Hershey delivers a strong performance that is both hard and angry yet at the same time deeply vulnerable.
Rounding out the rest of the cast are the familiar faces of Paul Freeman, David Suchet, Jeroen Krabbé and a young Tim Roth and Adrian Dunbar. The soundtrack is by Hans Zimmer and is similar tonally to his work on Rain Man which is fitting as I believe the director of that film, Barry Levinson, hired Zimmer based on what he heard here.
A World Apart is available to view in full on YouTube.