At Thy Call is a fictional South African army film set during the bush war.
Credits: by Christopher-Lee dos Santos, Cinematography Jean du Plessis
Running time around 37 minutes
This South African army film is set in 1984. The South African Bush War/ Border or Angolan War is in it’s 18th year. National Service is compulsory for white males who receive their “call up” papers the year they turn sixteen. To refuse can mean six years imprisonment.
The movie opens showing a young troopie walking home in his step-outs with his kit bag (balsak) on his back, with some commentary in the background. The scene switches to an earlier time, showing a black SWAPO terrorist being shot in the leg, and falling to ground. SADF troopies surround him, and the young man seen earlier, Danie Joubert, is commanded to shoot him. A shot rings out, and the scene changes to six months earlier.
A recent infantry intake is being trained on the shooting range at 3 South African Infantry training school in Potchefstroom. A Corporal is supervising and evaluating the men. He criticises a few men, then praises Danie. The Military Police (MPs) arrive to drop off another troopie, Nick Smith. This film follows the story of Danie, played by H O Meyer, and Nick, played by Ryan Dittman, during some of their time in the South African Infantry.
The Korporaal, played by Cpl. D Clark, addresses the troops and makes it clear that only Afrikaans is to be spoken, not English. He tells them they’ve learnt how to be soldiers during basics, and that they will now learn how to work as a team. There is the expected speech about fighting communists mixed with the chastising of some individuals, before the Korporaal singles Danie out and tells him that he also trained his brother. He designates Danie as Squad Leader. During role call, Nick answers in an insolent manner. He is punished and rest of the squad return to barracks. Danie bumps into a black worker en route, and although he doesn’t mind this, he insults the worker because the rest of the men are watching him. Nick returns to the barracks much later.
Danie is still awake and they talk. We learn that Nick is from 5-side, did time in Detention Barracks (DB) before being sent to join this camp. Hendrick Van Wyk, another troopie, voices his disgust at Nick, and Danie intervenes saying that Nick has already done his punishment. Hendrick’s character is used throughout the film to express the general view of the troopies.
In the next scene, the men are doing rifle PT. Danie struggles, and Nick helps him to keep his rifle high off the ground. Later, the men relax by reading letters and playing cards, while Nick sits one side, excluding himself. There is some footage of normal army life – Inspections, and running, and some pole, rifle, and tyre PT, followed by marching and obstacle course training.
Week six finds the men at the Battle training School in Lohatla. They are in the bush doing survival training when Nick breaks formation and wanders off. Danie goes after him to find out what he is doing. Nick tells him that he is tired of pointless war games. Danie explains that everyone needs survival training, and the Korporaal approaches them. He tells Danie (as Squad Leader) to get Nick back into formation, and when that fails, he sends Danie back and tells Corporal Van Tonder to get Nick back into formation. Later, we see Danie washing the mud off his face and hands, and he is angry. He seems to be conflicted, and it is unclear whether he is more annoyed at himself for disappointing the Korporaal, or with Nick whose behaviour he does not understand.
The men meet near some helicopters. Korporaal is giving a lecture, and explains that SWAPO are the black danger who treat their own people violently, and have no pity. He tells them that SWAPO want to come into South Africa to violate the men’s own family and friends, and to plant their red flag on South Africa soil. The men are being trained to go over the border to kill them to stop this from happening. The next step for them is to get into the helicopters for training drills. Hendrick stares at Nick to emphasise these points, but Nick shakes his head, watched by Danie.
The men are in army road transport, and there is tension because they know they will soon be in active service on the border. There is some banter, while Nick sits alone at the back. Danie leaves the group to speak to Nick, and Hendrick follows. Hendrick insults Nick and a fight breaks out. When they get back, the Korporaal punishes both of the men, with Nick being the worst off. He is sent to run up and down a mountain carrying a tyre, while Hendrick is made to run with his rifle. Danie approaches the Korporaal after the men leave, and tells him that Hendrick actually started the fight. The Korporaal punishes Danie for back chatting and sends him off to run up and down the same mountain as Nick. Danie runs past Nick who is laden with the tyre, but once they get back and Nick gets into further trouble for dropping the tyre before being told to, he later carries the tyre for his hurt and exhausted friend.
The next day, while cleaning the barracks, Danie asks Nick why he makes army life so hard for himself. Nick tells him that no matter what Danie does, the army has a way of taking care of it’s own. He says that he knows where he stands in “all of this”, but that he questions whether Danie knows why he is here, and asks him what he believes he is fighting for. Danie answers saying that he is there to stop the enemy from crossing the border, and to stop the communists from destroying South Africa. Nick tells him that those are the opinions of his family and society, and that he doesn’t know his own reasons. Nick tells him that he believes that the people they are fighting are their own people, and he asks him, “Can you kill an innocent person?” Nick believes the army and fighting are all nonsense, stealing men’s youth.
The Korporaal addresses the men once more with a pep talk. The black worker that Danie bumped into earlier is close by, and the Korporaal calls him and humiliates him. He asks the squad to acknowledge their white skin, and suddenly, Nick attacks the Korporaal. Danie tries to intervene, and pull Nick off, but he stops of his own accord. He yells to Danie that the black man is also a human being, and Korporaal Van Tonder ends his talking by hitting him with his rifle butt.
Danie cleans the barracks alone, and stops. He takes his hat off, and sits on the bed alongside Nick’s now empty bunk. He looks sad, and confused.
The men fly out to join Operation Askari, a large scale cross border operation into Angola. The men are in the bush, on the border, searching dead terrorists for information. Danie tracks and finds a SWAPO operative in the bush, while searching him the man reaches to grab his weapon. Hendrick shoots the man, then berates Danie for not making sure the terrorist is dead before searching him, and tells him never to put his men in this position again. Suddenly there is a shout, “SWAPO!” The men chase another man, and the film switches to one of the first scenes, where a terrorist falls to the ground having been shot in the leg.
What follows should be shocking as this faced paced film snaps to its conclusion.
I have used the word “terrorists” to describe SWAPO operatives because that is how they were regarded by South Africa and most of the world in the 1980’s. The fact that they did commit atrocities against civilians is well documented. The rhetoric of the film does reflect the age of the film maker. It is simplistic in style, but some of this is likely due to the length of the work. This style does work with this South African army film in a way as it media of the time was quite simplistic, probably due to the censorship laws of the time.
The movie is well filmed, it is face paced, and captivating. The props are authentic, and it feels “real” as you watch it. There is no hype and overkill, and ex infantrymen might well smile thinking back on their own time in the army. The “Korporaal” was a lot kinder to his men than most – if stories I have been told by my friends who served are even half-true! There are precious few films about the South African army during this time, which seems very odd given that the border war was so long and had such a huge effect on South African society.
The Not So Good:
There are many stereotypes in the film, which may be intentional, but will frustrate some people. The movie portrays a racist society where there are clear-cut divisions between English and Afrikaans speaking guys, and a huge divide between black and white. Some of the best thought of battalions in the old S A Defence Force included people of all population groups. The “enemy”, the “Black Danger”, SWAPO are presented in the film as an extension of the South African black population, and this, once again, seems very simplistic and biased. Although SWAPO did consist mainly of black men, it did include mercenaries from all over the world.
If you remember that this is a short film dealing with a very complicated time and situation, then you might enjoy it. It is likely to raise the blood pressure of ex-servicemen because of the character stereotyping which makes it feel like an old-fashioned propaganda film, but the other parts of it might help you to forgive this. I am pleased that this film was made and hope to see more set in the time and place. Media about the South African Bush War is scarce considering the huge impact it had on a whole generation.