Berlinale: Shepherds and Butchers

Shepherds and Butchers

Directed by Oliver Schmitz
Starring Steve Coogan, Garion Dowds and Andrea Riseborough

by Joanna Orland

A South African courtroom drama examining the nation’s death penalty stance was the last thing I wanted to see at a 10:45pm screening at this year’s already exhausting Berlinale film festival.  Preconceptions were best left at the cinema door as Shepherds and Butchers gripping courtroom scenes and harrowing hangings held my full attention long into the midnight hour.

Suited for release as more of an HBO drama rather than a cinematic experience, the story of former executioner Leon Labuschagne (Dowds) who is on trial for murdering seven people is a moral and psychological drama.  Leon’s attorney Johan Webber (Coogan) bases his defence on the idea of Leon suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following his work as prison guard where he acted as executioner on a record number of hangings.  Using the trial as a platform for arguing against the death penalty in South Africa as much as pleading his client’s case, Johan faces a challenge against prosecutor Kathleen Marais (Riseborough) as he tries to get to the bottom of Leon’s cause for murdering seven people with no obvious motive.

The bulk of the drama unfolds in the courtroom as Johan harshly interrogates his own client in order to break him down in demonstrating PTSD.  While Coogan feels slightly miscast in what could have been a very hard-hitting role in the right actor’s hands, Garion Dowds as Leon gives a true breakout performance.  His interrogation scenes in the prison and predominantly the courtroom are difficult to watch due to his stoic nature, while giving the audience a glimpse into his true emotion from the mere twitch of an eye.  With the majority of the film’s shots framed tightly on Garion, this young actor holds Shepherds and Butchers together through his powerful performance.

The narrative primarily takes place in the courtroom, but through flashbacks into Leon’s prison work, the audience is privy to distressing imagery as hanging rituals are played out on screen with very little left to the imagination.  Portraying the reality of the death penalty’s harshness is key to the audience empathizing with the trauma that Leon has endured, and crucial in spite of requiring an introductory warning from the director regarding the graphic nature of the film’s visuals.

What this film touches upon but never fully explores is racial tension in 1980’s South Africa, when and where this film is set.  There is reference to potential racial motive of Leon’s crime, but first and foremost this film focuses on the death penalty and the moral implications its existence holds.  Adding a racial element to the story could have detracted from the point at the centre of it, and I support director Oliver Schmitz’s approach to referencing the matter rather than focusing on it in order to serve the purpose of the narrative.  Exploring the racial tensions would require an entire extra film accompaniment, another reason this film would have perhaps been better suited to a television drama.

Not for the faint of heart or necessarily the big screen, Shepherds and Butchers is a powerfully distressing courtroom drama exploring some of the injustice in this world.


Leave a Reply