Recently released local film Krotoa is ‘inspired by historical facts’ – so it was (unsurprisingly) speculative in its narrative. But speculation can be harmful, particularly when it involves the bending of a traumatic history to frame the oppressor kindly. Here’s what I wish I had known as a POC before seeing this movie.
The film tells the story of an 11-year old child, Krotoa, who is removed from her Khoi tribe (Goringhaiqua) to serve Jan van Riebeeck, who ‘falls in love’ with her. As she grows up, she becomes a ‘mediator’ between the Khoi and the Dutch, with knowledge of both cultures and languages. She is abused by the Dutch, shunned by her tribe and spirals into alcoholism when she witnesses the full brutality of the colonisation of her people, at the side of her Dutch husband.
1. Jan van Riebeeck is Painted as Redeemable
Jan van Riebeeck looks like a dashing young white hipster with his softly unbuttoned shirt and sculpted facial hair. He is romanticised as hot and – more worryingly – this contributes to portraying him as redeemable, merciful and forgivable. This is a seriously harmful and misleading narrative arc.
Jan van Riebeeck watches Krotoa grow up, fancies himself her protector, and then rapes her in her late teens. This slave/master/paedophile dynamic unfolds as ‘genuine love’ from the side of Van Riebeeck, with changing levels of reciprocity from Krotoa. Later, Krotoa forgives him, embraces him and says he changed her life. She also – infuriatingly – misses him when he leaves the Cape Colony, as Jan van Riebeeck made merciful ‘concessions’ to the natives not granted by the new administration. It would be one thing if this was based on truth, but the whole relationship is speculation, and the stockholm syndrome is artistic licence on top of that.
2. A Very Dodgy Allusion to Consent
Jan van Riebeeck’s rape scene is preceded by a scene of Krotoa masturbating. This suggests that she was willing in some capacity – it alludes to ambiguity and complicity. This made me feel sick. The masturbation scene happens after Krotoa has spent time with Jan van Riebeeck. The cinematic result implies that the rape is somewhat justified. The directors chose to position the assault in the context of a relationship between a newly adolescent Krotoa who likes van Riebeeck and a young, well-meaning van Riebeeck with a genuine affection for Krotoa. This does not sit well with me at all. It’s a deliberate choice to set up as a romance what was essentially servitude, oppression and sexual abuse (which likely started earlier in Krotoa’s life).
3. Krotoa’s Political Leanings May Make You Mad
As opposed to fighting, resisting or tricking the Dutch and prioritising her people, Krotoa’s strength (in the movie) seemed to lie in her negotiating for a peaceful middle ground. I found this insulting. While the Khoi and the Dutch men want to destroy each other (the Khoi ‘stole’ their cattle; the Dutch stole their land), the mediator Krotoa introduces this kind of thinking: The land doesn’t belong to us; we belong to the land – if only we can live in peace… Favouring this kind of hippie-harmony narrative in the context of a brutal colonisation that continues to infiltrate every corner of South Africa is maddening.
4. The Repeated Use of the Word Hottentot
This is, no doubt, true to the era and was important to reflect the reality of the climate. I am not challenging the choice to use the word in the film. But it can be triggering. I fully expected it. And it still triggered a special kind of violence when heard from the lips of an Afrikaans man. So, be ready for this. Coupled with the characterisation of Krotoa as a hottentot with a Hollandse hart (she finds a measure of happiness at various points in the movie living with her oppressors), your emotional/psychological reaction (particularly if you’re coloured) may catch you off-guard.
5. The ‘First Interracial Marriage’ – which Birthed the Coloured Race?
Despite having been locked up, raped and made to live in servitude, Krotoa appears to find happiness with Doctor van Meerhoff (who helps her through the miscarriage of Jan van Riebeeck’s baby). In what is meant to be a stirring scene, Krotoa and the doctor have loving, consensual sex, ending with his large pale body spooning her tiny brown frame. Then they get married, she takes his Dutch surname, and has his kids.
The kids: I was struck by a sense that they look like me – a feeling of ‘and-that’s-where-coloureds-come-from’. Not so much from the romanticised interracial sex scene, but more believably from the Jan van Riebeeck rape scene. But, of course, our ancestry is far more complex than that. What’s upsetting is that a part of our ancestry (as coloureds) is quite likely the result of Dutch rape – the extent of which we simply cannot ever know.
6. The ‘Mad, Drunken, Raging, Ravaged Coloured Woman’ Trope
When Jan van Riebeeck leaves the Cape, Krotoa is no longer the governor’s tongue. She spirals into alcoholism and is found to be an unfit mother. Her children are taken from her. Living on Robben Island with her doctor husband, she sees how her people are made slaves and prisoners. In what is possibly the best moment of the movie, there is a scene where Krotoa (older, abandoned, drunk) dances a traditional dance in mourning on the shore, intoxicated enough to feel and express the full memory of her culture, until she collapses on the sand. The image of a person of colour, stripped of her heritage, history and name clinging to alcohol and dance, rung true.
What was disappointing was the trope. From Khoisan slaves to farm workers, there’s a history of deliberate sedation through alcohol. And presenting Krotoa as a drunk in this movie did not even attempt to include the history of how alcoholism was imposed on the race as a tool of control.
7. The End Credits Make You Realise Our Stories (much like Krotoa) Are Still Being Colonised
It is mentioned that Krotoa’s descendants were mixed race, black and white. But, in the end credits, only her famous white descendants are mentioned by name. They included Jan Smuts and Paul Kruger. It is a problem of selection and omission that not a single descendant of colour was mentioned by name.
8. You Will Realise that You’ll Never Know What We’ve Lost
From the ‘strandlopers’ living without the threat of bullets and the young couple eating mussels on a black rock to the language, lineage and ancestral names we’ll never know because they were taken violently from us, to the resistance of Khoisan men shooting bows and arrows by moonlight… The movie definitely does this: it fleshes out the gravity of a culture eradicated. It reaffirmed to me that what we have left, what remains, is the flicker of a giant. While the movie is littered with problematic narrative arcs, that stuck with me, like that Dutch flag stuck in my eye. Even now, with our Afrikaans and French surnames, it’s clear why coloured identity problems persist. It made me realise that we’ll never know just how much was taken from us, or how violently.
Krotoa took what is already a deeply traumatic history and made it more traumatic. It didn’t have to do this. The story of Krotoa is an important one. And artistic licence doesn’t mean you get to be irresponsible. Narrative – particularly when it draws on a history of oppression – must be treated with respect, care and fairness. This also (and importantly) does not mean that one has to succumb to stereotypical characters or story lines. Art is hard. Historical fiction is no exception. So before you go see this movie, make sure you’re ready for its flaws and their effect on you as a POC.
For a much more detailed analysis and serious insight into Krotoa (the woman), read this: