When it comes to artistically licentious biopics of stars and historical figures, their subjects have usually been interred long enough not to raise a stink about their filmic representation. Sandra Laing, the focus of Anthony Fabian’s new film Skin, then, presents something of an anomaly. Not only is she around to promote the onscreen depiction of her life, she is still living through elements of the appalling personal and social prejudices dramatised in Skin. The film portrays Laing’s experience of growing up a dark-skinned child born to white Afrikaner parents in 1950s South Africa, and the consequent rejection she faced from her relatives and community. LWLies meets her.
LWLies: How did this film come about? Aside from the Anthony Thomas’ BBC documentary (The Search for Sandra Laing, 1977), had you been approached before about having a dramatic film made about your life?
Laing: Tony Fabian, the film director, heard my story over the radio. I was interviewed with a blind guy. I can’t remember [his name]… but Tony had heard the interview with that guy and then he called me. That was in 2000. So Tony called me and said he wanted to come and meet me to make a film. He had a contract that said he wanted to make a film and I agreed to that, and from then on it was Tony. It’s been 9 years now.
LWLies: So what made you agree to have him make the film?
Laing: I just thought that, ‘maybe he’ll be the one who will change my life’. At that time I was staying in a rented house, but since I met him [Fabian], he really helped me a lot. You know, I’ve got my own big house now, and my life is much better.
LWLies: How far were you involved in the making of the film itself? Were you involved with the script at all?
Laing: I did help him when, maybe they wanted to know something, I would help them with it. When they started to make the film - it was 2007 - they would always come and fetch me when they were filming and I would help them with it, until the end.
LWLies: And when did you first see the film?
Laing: I saw the film… The first time was last year, June – it was at the Oprah Winfrey School in Johannesburg. That was the first time I saw the film.
LWLies: How did it feel to see if for the first time?
Laing: It was sad but it’s a very nice film.
LWLies: It’s hard to believe everything you went through – there are very tragic parts to your story – but the film is framed positively. It begins in 1994 with the first free elections in South Africa and ends by marking the opening of your shop. Was that important to you?
Laing: Yes… When I sit and watch the film, most of the time I get sad. I see how I suffered all the years in Apartheid. But I’m glad the film has been made so that people can see how the Apartheid treated people. Since Apartheid has finished now, it’s much better.
LWLies: Did you feel that it was finally the right time for the film to be made?
Laing: Yeah, it had to be after the Apartheid, because in the Apartheid, they didn’t want people to know about what the Apartheid did to people [Anthony Thomas’ 1977 BBC documentary, In Search of Sandra Laing, was banned in South Africa at the time]. But now, people will see how Apartheid did treat people. Since Apartheid is finished, it’s much better now.
LWLies: We see a lot about your life in the film but when you watch it, do you feel distanced from it? Or do you feel it truly reflects your experience?
Laing: It’s much wider than that, I think… But I can just say that I’m glad everything is over but that I’ve still got to try to see my brothers, because they don’t want to see me. I’m still trying to see them.
LWLies: It’s mentioned at the end of the film that you’re still not in touch with your brothers, and not by your choice. Do you hope to make contact through the film?
Laing: Yeah, I hope they see it and try to come into contact with me but Tony [Fabian] tried and Tony’s friend, Michael, tried – but he’s busy now doing a documentary… He also tried to talk to my brothers but they don’t want to. They don’t want to see me.
LWLies: The film also shows how difficult your relationship with your mother was, but that in the end you were reconciled. Is that a fair reflection?
Laing: Yeah, everything in the film is true. And my brothers didn’t want me to find my mother. My mother was in a home in Pretoria, and I asked the Sunday Times in South Africa – they found her – and then I went to see her. But when I got there she didn’t believe it was me because my brothers always told her that I’d died long ago. She was glad to see me, and then the following week I took all my kids to go and see her. She was glad to see them. The sisters there said she was much better when she saw me; she was always ill but after she saw me she was much better. Then when she died, my brothers didn’t want them to let me know she’d died. I phone and asked, ‘how is she?’, and they told me she’d died two weeks ago. She was already buried. They still don’t want me to see them.
LWLies: How about your five children? It must be an emotional experience for them to watch the film but at the same time they must be proud of you.
Laing: Yes, they were very glad to see the film. They’re just angry with my brothers – that they don’t want to come and see me, or come and see them. Maybe they will, I don’t know.
LWLies: The film has had a great response at festivals and is having its UK premiere in support of FilmAid [on 2nd July]. What do you hope will come of the film?
Laing: I just hope that my brothers, if they can see the film, that they will forgive me and come and see me. But if they don’t it doesn’t matter because I’ve now got my own family. But I hope they will contact me and come and see me.
LWLies: You say you hope your brothers will forgive you but most people would think it should be the other way round. Are you more sad than angry at your situation?
Laing: I was angry at first, but now my life is much better. My kids are grown up now, they are married, and I’ve got a better life now. I have got Johannes [Sandra’s second husband] and I’m alright now.
LWLies: You said earlier that the film had changed your life. Can you say a bit more about that?
Laing: At first, we were just staying in a rented house. I didn’t have a phone in the house, but since I met Tony, I bought myself a house, a bigger house – my whole family lives there. It’s much better now.
LWLies: Do you still have your shop?
Laing: No, I closed the shop, because the council where I stay said you can’t have tuck shops there...
Laing: I don’t know why… And I had to close the place.
LWLies: The film hasn’t come out in South Africa yet, has it? Laing: No, not yet. They said it’s going to come out on August 10th in South Africa but I think here in the UK, it’s going to come out on the 24th July.
LWLies: Is your story well-known in South Africa? Laing: In South Africa most people don’t know about me, but when the film comes out they can see what Apartheid did do to people.
LWLies: Are you expecting a positive reception, or do you think some people are still unprepared to confront the issues the film raises?
Laing: No, I hope that when people will see they won’t be… They won’t let their kids suffer the way I suffered. I hope they will see that and that it will be a nice film.
LWLies: You’re obviously a lot more settled in your own life now than we see in the film. How far do you think your experience mirrors recent South African history?
Laing: The Apartheid is finished now in South Africa, but the attitude of the white people will never end. Maybe when my grandchildren are grown up, but not now.
LWLies: How have you found the response to the film at screenings you’ve attended so far?
Laing: Every time the film has been at a festival we’ve been there, and after the film the people have talked to me and asked questions. When they’ve watched the film they’re glad to see that I’m there… Some are sad to see what I went through but I tell them that my life is better now.