Discover This: Layla Fourie

Copyright: Pandora Filmproduktion

Layla Fourie is determined to find a job. „I need to make a living,“ she says and her honesty in the interview pays off. The casino manager employs her, but she still can’t buy her young son that bike he is riding around with in a supermarket. Layla Fourie is an honest and modest woman. Judging from her appearance, you might call her reserved or cool, but this façade only means that Layla is neither helpless, dependent on a man, nor emotionally unstable. Layla Fourie is the first of a series of this year’s exciting female film portraits that have powerful performances by little-known but outstanding actresses, such as Rayna Campbell.

Layla Fourie works as what I figure is an assistant human resource manager – someone who does background checks on possible employees by interrogating them while they are connected to a lie detector. She asks them about drug abuse, their criminal record, and their drinking habits and also about their names and the colour of the walls to countercheck their bodily reaction to the truth. Layla is a single mother who wants to live a decent life and guarantee her son a good future in a post-Apartheid South Africa that is still divided into rich and poor, black and white.

One night, as Layla is driving along the roads in the countryside, she runs over a white man who is waving for help after his car had broken down. After the accident, the man is still alive but when Layla drives him to the nearest hospital, no one answers the door and the man eventually dies. Panicking at the idea that she might end up in jail and her son will be taken to a children’s home, Layla buries the man at a trash dump and hopes that the truth won’t come out.

What unfolds now is a gripping melodrama of guilt, race, and despair that would have made Douglas Sirk proud. But mind you, the director of Layla Fourie is Pia Marais, whose take on complex female portraits (as proven in the brisk At Ellen’s Age, 2010) avoids all kitsch and leaves the musical score at a minimum. Marais is more interested in taking a closer look at a post-colonial society and in dissecting the social and political dimensions of a personal disaster. When Layla enters a small police station to report the accident, the moments of silence after a white police officer asks her what she wants tell you enough about the implications it would have for a black working class woman to report her killing a white business man. Layla hesitates and turns around.

Copyright: Pandora Filmproduktion
Copyright: Pandora Filmproduktion

There are powers at work here that are mostly invisible and that control people like Layla wherever they go. The surveillance cameras that witness how she tries to rub off the bloodstains from her car seat are one manifestation of that. Another example is the ubiquity of racial profiling and prejudice in modern South African society. Maintaining power over others seems to be one of the major themes of the film which can also be seen in Layla’s job as someone who tries to control truthfulness in people. Lie detectors are often unreliable technical means of trying to find out the truth. As a technical application, they highlight people’s mistrust and awkwardness in dealing with each other.

Copyright: Pandora Filmproduktion
Copyright: Pandora Filmproduktion

Layla Fourie, however, seems to be the only person who is able to deal with other people – her son, employers, friends – until her accident throws her off the track. It’s others who, for different reasons, don’t seem to be able to deal with Layla and the causes for this are rarely said or shown. A couple doesn’t want to host Layla’s son for a few days and a white woman is initially suspicious and unwilling to let a black woman and her son into her villa.
In the course of the story, Layla looks for stability and redemption, but when she finds out that the white arms in which she finds some solace belong to the son of the man she killed, she returns to her precarious unrest.

Layla Fourie is an eclectic and intelligent drama with a breath-taking female lead and a complex structure of political undertones that resound long after the credits have rolled. Pia Marais, who was born is Johannesburg, proves to be one of the most interesting new directors, not only when it comes to female portraits, but also when it comes to giving the audience space to reflect on the things that are shown and the things that are invisible.

Layla Fourie, Germany/ South Africa/ France/ Netherlands 2013, 105 min.

Watch the original trailer: Here.

director: Pia Marais, cinematography: Andre Chemetoff, actors: Rayna Campbell, August Diehl, Rapule Hendricks, Terry Norton, Rapulana Seiphemo, Jeroen Kranenburg, languages: English, distribution: RealFiction

Berlin screenings: Eiszeit, Hackesche Höfe, Lichtblick Kino

Discover This! is a weekly Berlin–based film comment.