September 11, 2008 / 8:53 PM / 10 years ago

Movie shows apartheid's cruelty and contradictions

TORONTO (Reuters) - In apartheid-era South Africa, a country where race meant everything, Sandra Laing was a poster child for injustice, classified “colored” even though her parents were white.

British actress Sophie Okonedo speaks during the "Secret Life of Bees" news conference at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival in this September 6, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Cassese/Files

Kicked out of an all-white boarding school because of the color of her skin, Laing was later reclassified white in response to her parents’ legal campaign. But in a viciously racist society, her family rejected her when she fell in love with a black man, leaving her to start her life anew.

Her story has now become a movie, “Skin,” which opened to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. It examines race, prejudice and the apartheid era through the eyes of an unusual woman.

“It is an absolutely extraordinary story which moved me to tears when I first heard it,” director Anthony Fabian told Reuters at the festival, noting parallels between Laing’s story and that of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, the son of a black father and a white mother.

“The story is completely relevant. You only have to look at what is happening in the U.S. election right now,” he said. “There are questions about race: Is Barack Obama black or white? He’s half black, half white, and yet to the world, he will be America’s first black president.”

“Skin” was filmed in South Africa and spans a 30-year period that includes both Laing’s childhood, her wrenching break with her family and her chance to vote in South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994.

Laing is portrayed by Sophie Okonedo, nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Hotel Rwanda,” and by exploring her life, the film takes a detailed look at the contradictions of apartheid and at how people identify with an ethnic group.

“Sophie is one of the few actors who had the right look to play Sandra,” Fabian said. “Her own experience — her mother white Jewish and her father Nigerian — was much closer to Sandra’s than a colored actress in South Africa’s would have been.”

Laing, now in her early 50s, was in Toronto for the premiere — her first trip to North America. She said she was pleased and moved by the movie.

South Africa has changed greatly since the era of the movie, but it remains a race conscious society. “I’m still a colored,” Laing said, describing herself by the apartheid-era classification for people of mixed race.

Fabian is still seeking a U.S. distributor for the movie, although he has sold it in a number of other countries, including South Africa.

“It is selling but the big thing that we are expecting still to happen is for a U.S. distributor to come on board. That’s what the Toronto film festival is all about.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Ross Colvin

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