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The Harvesters

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Apr 18, 2019
'The Harvesters'
'The Harvesters'  

Writer-director Etienne Kallos impresses with his debut feature, "The Harvesters."

Janno (Brent Vermeulen) is about 15, and growing up in a farm in the Free State province of South Africa. His parents, like the people of heir rural community, are intensely religious; Janno suppresses his desires for his best friend, gets up early to work the fields, plays rugby on the grasslands with his buddies, and prays right along with his family and congregation, his hand clasped in theirs.

Then his mother, Marie (Juliana Venter), brings home a street-tough city boy named Pieter (Alex Van Dyk), a watchful, withdrawn, and clearly traumatized 13-year-old who's had to sell his body to survive. "Did you have to choose the roughest one?" Janno's father, Jan (Morné Visser) grumbles. But to Marie, Pieter is a gift from God; he may suffer from nightmares and, at the beginning, the symptoms of drug withdrawal, but she sees it as her duty to God to take him in, adopt him, and guide him to salvation both in this world and the next.

The two boys quickly forge a relationship that's part mutual contempt and part fraternal friendship — though the friendship is strained, since each can see in the other the ways in which neither of them fit in. Pieter shows an enthusiastic interest in girls, but he's not shy about acknowledging that he's been "gay for pay" in the past (and still might be), even going to far, at one juncture, as to quote his prices to an interested older man ("300 for anything above the belt; 600 for anything below"). Pieter is a wild child who initially rejects the family's churchgoing ways ("You're all brainwashed," he mutters, sitting in the car and staring out at the church in dismay); his own foster sisters — Marie and Jan's several small girls, all adopted — even wonder whether Pieter is, like then, Afrikaans, given his hostile affect and poor manners. Yes, he is, Marie assures them — and that, she notes at another point, is very much to the point. White Afrikaans people are, she believes, dying out. It's important for them to help their own kind.

This point of cultural reference, along with several mentions to "farm murders" that worry the locals, is helpful to American viewers, echoing as it does the belief — among U.S. conservatives as those elsewhere — that white South African farmers have become the targets of some sort of racially-motivated conspiracy of genocide. (Most sources note that black farmers are murdered far more frequently than white farmers in South Africa.) Fervent religiosity; a sense among whites that they are marked for eradication; a hint of our opioids crises in the way Pieter, at his young age, has experienced addiction. What Midwestern gay kid won't pick up on these resonances and sympathize with Janno as he struggles against mounting panic that the newcomer is going to supplant him?

And indeed, as the film progresses, a kind of role reversal does begin to take effect, some of it born from Janno's own sense of otherness and some of it the result of Pieter's sly psychological warfare. It can't help when Janno's senile grandfather mistakes him Pieter and calls him a "faggot" and "trash" — Janno wonders, as we also must, whether the old man really is confusing the two boys, or whether he sees more deeply into Janno's forbidden desires than Janno would want him to? Then there's the moment Janno witnesses Marie consoling Pieter in the most tenderly maternal way and then, not long after, finds her kneeling in the fields, holding up handfuls of earth like a supplicant and praying for God to "make him strong, make his blood string, make his seed strong" — a slightly creepy invocation that she used to pray for Janno's benefit.

A showdown is imminent, and, given the way the movie is steeped in the hardcore rural faith of its setting, hellfire (or some equivalent of it) is sure to play a part. Part thriller, part erotic drama (albeit with the eros mostly submitted), "The Harvesters" yields a cinematic bounty and might well make new stars of its director and two main actors.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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