Oliver Schmitz’s latest work Shepherds and Butchers is a courtroom drama where the verdict is not as important as what led to the crime. From its opening frames, on a rainy night in South Africa in the late eighties, we witness Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds), in what initially seems like a momentary fit of rage, guns down a minivan taxi filled with football players. Labuschagne’s guilt, at least to the audience, is never in question. Even his legal counsel led by Johan Webber (Steve Coogan), who is known for his anti-capital punishment stance, concede that it is the type of case most lawyers would not touch as the evidence is clearly stacked against him.
In order to even mount any semblance of a defense for his client, Webber must figure out what caused this young prison guard to snap and kill seven black men he had never met before. Furthermore, why was the crime committed, of all places, in an area where the Pretoria prison, where Labuschagne worked, loomed in the distance? Believing that the prison holds the key to unlocking the trigger within Labuschagne, Webber begins to construct a case that will ultimately question the mental impact of one’s work environment.
Highlighting the harsh practices that occurred on the death row wards of prisons in South Africa at the time, Shepherds and Butchers is not shy about its anti-capital punishment message. The reenactments of the hangings are unrelenting in their authenticity. Schmitz does not glorify the events, but rather emphasizes just how brutal it was for all involved. One can practical smell the stench of blood and urine dripping in certain scenes, each sequence is made even more chilling by the barbaric actions of the executioners.
Unlike other capital punishment tales, this film focuses more on the men who are ordered to pull the lever than the ones actually hanged. Only a teenager when he started at the prison, Labuschagne was ordered to take part in over a hundred executions. Regardless of whether he was blindly following orders, or actually took sadistic pleasure in it as opposing counsel Kathleen Marais (Andrea Riseborough) argues at one point, it is clear that what he observed impacted every aspect of his life.
Adapted from Chris Marnewick’s novel, Shepherds and Butchers’ bleak plot unfolds rather conventionally and, though Schmitz tries to add some elements of mystery, the viewer puts the pieces together far quicker than Webber does. Still the bluntness of the brutality and the strong performances by Coogan, Dowds, and the underused Riseborough effectively get the film’s message across. Due to the subject matter, Shepherds and Butchers is not for those looking for escapism, but it does shine light on era in South African history that the world could stand to learn from.