This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
A rebellious young man, estranged from his ex-military father, starts to have a series of dreams where he is part of his father's platoon during his campaign in Angola but these are no ordinary dreams as he starts to discover things about his father that he had no other way of knowing.
What we thought
There's a real sense of writer/ director, Craig Gardner, pouring his heart and soul into My Father's War, to the point that, without knowing much about Gardner or any real behind the scenes facts of the film itself, it would not have surprised me at all to find out that everything about the film (save for the supernatural vision-like dreams, presumably) were stripped straight from his own life. As it turns out, things are slightly more complicated than that as the story draws much more from producer Peter Lamberti's life than Gardner's but that only further speaks to the level of passion that clearly went into ever frame of the film.
Here's the problem, though: for all that My Father's War clearly has its heart in the right place, it's good intentions only take it so far.
On the plus side, Gardner's direction is actually rather impressive for a first-time feature film director, with the war-torn dream sequences, in particular, giving him plenty to work with, but, top to bottom, there's little of the amateurish filmmaking that is often sadly all too present in South African films. Similarly, its subject matter does allow the film to address the complexities of soldiers fighting a war for a corrupt regime like the Apartheid government but against foes who may perhaps be even worse.
For all of this, though, there's just no getting past the fact that I found My Father's War a plodding slog to get through. The acting is generally fine, if occasionally slightly wooden, by a cast of veteran South African actors but the actors they get to play are somewhat one-note. Indeed, right until the final minutes of the film, the film persistently and resolutely refuses to play more than the same two or three notes over and over again.
We have the good-hearted, if somewhat closed-off father, Dawid. repeatedly trying to get through to his persistently stubborn and bratty son, Dap, while his wife, Karina, is torn between the two of them. There's also the son's girlfriend who refuses to be with him until he makes good with his father and the ex-war-buddy-turned-boss of Dawid's who acts as a sounding board for Dawid as he struggles and fails to connect with his son. The problem is that these relationships resolve exactly as you might expect them to, while these specific, unchanging dynamics are hammered home over and over again throughout the first three-quarters of the film without ever really delving much deeper into the characters themselves.
It also doesn't help that there is a certain creakiness to the dialogue that oddly rings far truer during the dream sequences than during the single-note exchanges than run throughout the rest of the film. Pulling back from the overwrought exposition of character's constantly relating to each other through the central father-son conflict at the heart of the film and allowing for a few more incidental, lighter exchanges would go some way towards leavening the overly contrived dialogue and giving it a more realistic, true-to-life feel.
It's strange, I normally have no problem writing off many of the utterly unreleasable garbage that the South African film industry routinely puts out because films should be judged as films not nationalistic charity cases, but I do genuinely feel bad giving My Father's War even a slight thumbs-down, as it is so thoroughly well-intentioned and quite respectably put together. Unfortunately, its basic storytelling problems make it impossible to truly recommend it, but Gardner and his cast and crew do still deserve plenty of respect for at least trying to make something this substantial and personal.