“A moral dilemma is presented — it’s not just ‘thou shall not kill’; it is also ‘thou shall not be taught how to kill’. How do you tell a story about someone who at the same time kills people and is a victim himself?”
Shepherds and Butchers is the true account of the legal process of capital punishment, and the inhumane treatment of prisoners on death row, which took place during the apartheid era in South Africa.
“It’s a film about young people taken by a society, taught how to kill and then left to their own devices,” says director Oliver Schmitz, “it’s very much about apartheid but equally it could be anywhere in the world, where a kid in a situation of war who is given a gun, is told to shoot someone, and must then go home and be normal. It doesn’t work.”
South Africa, 1987. When Leon, a white 19-year-old prison guard (Garion Dowds) commits an inexplicable act of violence, killing seven black men in a hail of bullets, the outcome of the trial – and the court’s sentence – seems a foregone conclusion.
Hotshot lawyer John Weber (Steve Coogan)reluctantly takes on the seemingly unwinnable case.
A passionate opponent of the death penalty, John discovers that young Leon worked on death row in the nation’s most notorious prison, under traumatic conditions: befriending the inmates over the years while having to assist their eventual execution.
As the court hearings progress, the case offers John the opportunity to put the entire system of legally sanctioned murder on trial. How can one man take such a dual role of friend and executioner, becoming both shepherd and butcher?
Statement from director Oliver Schmitz
“What I found fascinating about this story is that it shows what happened to a generation of white South Africans. Yes, they, and we, were all complicit in this society in whatever way, and we have to own up to it and think about it, but these kids under government orders were sent to fight in the war in Angola, or sent into the townships with guns, or to prisons like this and taught to kill other people. Whether they were either traumatized or got to like their jobs, they stopped living normal lives, started fighting with their families. Not being permitted to talk about what they were doing in their work forced them to cut off and suppress their emotions, and they often became aggressive. These ‘official’ killers were left to deal with the inevitable psychological effect alone, were not allowed to seek therapy, and some committed suicide.
“In this story, fictional, one of the warders, Leon Labuschagne, in an incident of road rage kills, seven people because seven is the number that were hanged every time — so there’s a motif. It’s really about what happened to them, but with a question mark — it’s a very important part of South African history. At this time, the younger generation working in government jobs had no options, they were instructed by the older generation what to do in order to enforce an apartheid society.
“Just out of school, Leon didn’t want to go to Angola and fight in the war, so he ended up working on death row, so there is an irony in that because he still participated in killing people.
We have sufficient room in the story to cast doubt as to how he much he liked or got addicted to that process. Speaking today to former warders it’s clear that they became addicted to that process.
“So a moral dilemma is presented — it’s not just ‘thou shall not kill’; it is also ‘thou shall not be taught how to kill’. How do you tell a story about someone who at the same time kills people and is a victim himself?
“Apart from working with brutal material and images, the inhumanity and hangings, the challenges have alsobeen to make the story tangible, how to make the court and death row work together, and how to find the moral dilemma in the lead characters. We had to find a way to bring all these elements together.
“It will be as complex a movie as I hoped it would be. Among all my other films this one has challenged me the most, and has been the most intense experience.”
The project had its inception in 2012 when producer, Anant Singh, sent his long-time collaborator, screenwriter/producer Brian Cox, a copy of Chris Marnewick’s award-winning novel to see if he would be interested in writing the screenplay. Cox responded to the material right away and very quickly wrote the initial adaptation.
It was Oliver Schmitz’s acclaimed motion picture Life Above All that convinced the two producers thatSchmitz was the ideal filmmaker to bring to the screen Marnewick’s remarkable, true account of the legal process of capital punishment, and the inhumane treatment of prisoners on death row, which took place during the apartheid era in South Africa.
The project also instantly resonated with Schmitz, who not only has an accomplished background of directing anti-apartheid films, but who also was personally involved in political activism in South Africa in the 1980s.
Schmitz elaborates, “I was blown away by the material, and the subject matter is also of personal interest to me because at the end of the 1980s I wanted to make a movie about death row – but an entirely different story – and
during my research I spent a lot of time with one of the prisoners there. It turned out that film was too complicated and too difficult to make, but it stuck with me, and when I read Brian’s script, I thought, ‘it must be fate, because now I have another chance, and this story is even more complex, interesting and riveting’ — so I said yes very quickly.”
Telling the story
Despite the challenge of adapting Chris Marnewick’s extremely detailed 400-page book to a 100-page script, screenwriter Brian Cox says he knew immediately that he wanted to tackle the material.
“Chris Marnewick was a defense attorney who represented a number of criminals up for capital cases, and not only did he know the subject matter first-hand, but he had included an astounding amount of fact-based detail in the book. So, even though you realize you are reading a fictional story, the veracity of Chris’ account, all the factual background, very slyly seduces you into thinking that you’re in a non-fiction world. I found that to be a unique experience, as a reader.”
As Chris Marnewick explains: “The novel is about a prison warder who is forced to participate in the execution of condemned men. The world of the prison – as well as the courts that condemn these men – is presented as it really was. But the fictional part of the novel puts this warder on trial for his life, with the possibility that he will hang on the very same gallows where he worked.”
Cox elaborates, “The historical records, the numbers of men killed, the way the condemned were processed, all of this is true. The fictional device in the story is Leon Labuschagne, who has flipped out from his experiences on death row and has murdered 7 innocent people in an event that is so traumatic to him that he can no longer even remember it– so, like the book, our movie is a fictional account set against a factual backdrop.
“However, in adapting Chris’ book to film, there simply wasn’t enough screen-time available to go into every single aspect of the case that Chris develops so accurately — such as the day-to-day prison administration which he writes about in fascinating detail. So we made the through-line of the story very distinct and streamlined and focused on the central conflict or moral dilemma – which is that Leon is on trial for a crime we know he committed, but the reasons for his actions are what we set out to reveal and discover. And it’s those reasons that propel the story forward.
“I find the conflict element in the story, that space for doubt about Leon, extremely interesting, because it’svery unclear how you should feel about him. From the outset, you see that he’s a murderer. Regardless of what he did, however, you slowly come to understand what caused his breakdown, what caused his actions — so our narrative focuses on that moral grey area and forces you to confront whether you personally think he’s culpable or not.”
“I wrote the book in part to expose what really happened in Maximum Security Prison where the executions took place in secret,” concludes Marnewick. “While the events described in the book took place during the apartheid era, the novel was not intended to be an apartheid book. It was intended to be a book about killing and what it does to the killer who kills with the sanction of the law. And about the society that allows killing to be done in its name.”
Bringing the characters to life
One of the most complex and difficult roles in the film came to young South African actor Garion Dowds who plays Leon Labuschagne. Leon’s actions serve as the catalyst for the story, prompting John Weber’s investigation into the harsh world of the prison system in 1980s South Africa.
At just 19 years of age, South African actor Garion Dowds stepped into the daunting role of Leon Labuschagne, a young prisoner warder, murderer and defendant, who is also the same age as the young, new and upcoming actor.
Dowds has no misgivings about the significance of Labuschagne’s story and, as a “born-free” South African (bornafter the legislation of democracy) he has a special appreciation of the material. “I think it’s a very important story to tell because even those who are aware of it do not know the reality of what happened in these prisons. It was very secretive; these wardens weren’t allowed to say anything. It’s a real eye-opener for both the South African people who were there, and our new generation. It’s also meaningful for audiences all over the world to see just how far we’ve come in yet another aspect of South Africa’s political history.”
In close proximity to Dowds’ character is the Warrant Officer played by award-winning South African actor DeonLotz. As warder of C-Max Prison in the 1980s, the Warrant Officer is Labuschagne’s superior. “The two characters have avery complex relationship, one part is fear that the Warrant Officer instills in Leon, and another part is a father-son kind of relationship,” says Lotz.
The Warrant Officer is the embodiment of the system that Labuschagne attempts, but fails, to adapt to. Lotz concurs that the Warrant Officer is brutal, “even if he serves under a captain or an officer, he is still the one who physically runs the operation, who ensures that the system operates with efficiency. He would break a prisoner’s arms if he had to, and he expects his staff to work with the same exacting, uncompromising professionalism – if you can call it that.”
Lotz believes the film is profoundly relevant to today’s society. “Everybody these days is shouting ‘bring backthe death penalty’, but is it the right thing to do? That’s the big question, and I think it’s very important that this story is told, to emphasize: ‘you can never be sure’.”
Steve Coogan’s character, defense attorney John Weber, is the protagonist from whose perspective the storyis told. In preparation for his role as a South African lawyer, Coogan immersed himself not only in South African culture,but in its grim history as well. “I did an awful lot of research of this period of South African history to inform me about the environment in which Weber was living. I felt more comfortable stepping into the role after I submerged myself in modern, democratic South Africa.
“What separates this film from other courtroom dramas, and makes it more difficult for the audience, is that Weber isn’t trying to defend a hero; instead, he’s trying to defend a damaged individual who’s committed a heinouscrime. He’s trying to save a life. And because the person he’s defending is a white man who killed seven black men, it’s not a particularly sympathetic cause. So it’s kind of thankless because even if he is victorious nobody will call him a hero. That’s the poignancy of the entire film, that he’s acting for the sake of humanity although it won’t win him any friends for having done it.”
On the opposite end of the legal battle is Andrea Riseborough’s state prosecutor who is tasked with presenting the case against Labuschagne in order to punish him to the full extent of the law: the death penalty. But her cause is not ignoble. “There’s a part of Kathleen’s fight that has a lot of integrity, in that she’s representing the families of seve innocent victims,” says Riseborough.
Riseborough, who is no stranger to serious dramatic roles, confesses the weight of such grave material was considerable. “It was really wonderful to have all of those feelings, but also really difficult. The courtroom scenes were intense and we had to take a lot of time out, all of us. There was a lot of grim dialogue — even to say some of it alone to yourself at night, in preparation for the next day’s scenes, was tough.”
Well-known South African actor Marcel van Heerden plays Judge J.P. van Zyl who will pass down the verdict as to whether or not young Labuschagne’s life is to be taken away. “My challenge as an actor is to make a human being out of ‘the hanging judge’. I try to bring this human being to life because I believe that everyone has their reasons for their actions, whether good or bad. There is, of course, a subjective element in a judge’s judgments. It’s not entirely objective; they come with certain prejudices which get filtered through a certain human being with a certain personality. Judge van Zyl serves the system in a way that he believes is just and fair.”
In the context of the waning apartheid regime, the political implications of the case’s verdict were naturally quite grave — as van Heerden details: “the case has a strong symbolic meaning in the context of the period. It’s a story about an individual caught in a system which ultimately is on trial. Leon was just an ordinary boy who didn’t want to go to the army because he didn’t want to fight in the war in Angola. Ironically, the job which the government instead recruited him for still involved killing.”
Eduan van Jaarsveld steps into the role of Pedrie Wierda, the public defender who assists John Weber in his fight to save Labuschagne from the death penalty. “Wierda hasn’t been successful thus far in his legal career, and he doesn’t understand that law is a grey area,” says van Jaarsveld, adding that although Wierda is a bit lost and certainly out of his depth, “he has a good heart and genuinely believes he can make a difference.”
Further ensuring the veracity of court procedure, the production called in the assistance of Advocate John van den Berg as a consultant. He explains the legal system’s uncompromising approach to murder in the 1980s: “If you were found guilty of murder, the death sentence was mandatory. There was a burden cast on the accused to justify a sentence other than death. And in the 1980s, young South African policemen were whisked away to Angola and other unnamed places and brought back in body bags.In this story, the reason that young Leon Labuschagne became a young warder was to avoid being posted to the front.”
Regarding the emotional stress of those involved in the death penalty system, particularly the warders who carried out the hangings, van den Berg says “it must have been unbelievably traumatic for anybody to be involved in the executions, let alone a 19-year-old. Dowd plays the young warder in a very subtle and very realistic way that speaks to one emotionally.”
As a person who is relieved that the era of South Africa’s death penalty is behind them, van den Berg believes that the film might carry a meaningful message to other countries that still enforce the death penalty. “This is a very important story that must be told. In that period in South Africa no one had the courage to write about these things, so even publishing fictional accounts was like treading on thin ice.”