In a movie, Rick Turner’s family would find closure


In a movie, Rick Turner’s family would find closure

While shooting a film in Athens, JANN TURNER learnt that a former apartheid security policeman had testified about the night her father was murdered in 1978.

  • 29 March 2024
  • Free Speech
  • 12 min to read
  • article 2 of 16
  • Jann Turner

NEWS of the surprise witness and his shock testimony reached me via text. I was in Athens, in the midst of a firefight, phone buzzing insistently in my pocket. In a lull between shots, I opened the message and a link to a news report. A former security policeman, testifying in an unrelated case, had said under oath in the Pietermaritzburg high court that he was a member of the 24/7 surveillance detail on my father’s house. And that on the night my father was killed, he’d been ordered to stand down.

Forty-four years had elapsed between that night and the day this old man decided to share his story. Forty-four years and countless investigations, appeals, false leads and false hopes. Forty-four years. And now this.

And me, here, pressed against the wall in a dark corner of this semi-abandoned building in Athens where I have just murdered a cop.

I don’t remember the name of my first victim but I do recall that my orders were to make it a quick, clean kill.  My boss at the time was a physically forgettable man but I can still hear the smug and self-satisfied notes in his voice when he told me to avoid a lingering, bloody mess. “We do murder lite,” he grinned. And waited. For me to laugh, I guess. But my face, my whole body for that matter, had frozen while his expression curdled with condescension at my inability to appreciate his wit.

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Behind my expressionless eyes an old movie clicked into replay. My father at the window of my bedroom. An explosion of light and sound as a shot was fired into him at close range. The gurgling sound that came out of him as he fell writhing to the floor, then the adrenalin rocketing him back to his feet and propelling him through the house till he ran into a wall. The blood pooling around us as I tried to lift him, managed to turn him, cradled his head in my lap, tried to stop the bleeding but couldn’t find the place where the bullet had entered. The stickiness of the blood, its sweet, thick, metallic smell, his rasping attempts to breathe as the blood filled his lungs, drowning him. 

“Yeah”, I replied tonelessly to the writer, “murder lite is totally my preference too.”

Since then I have bludgeoned, suffocated, strangled, shot and blown up countless victims. Hollywood writers’ rooms seethe with excited innocents sipping flat whites and grazing on artisanal muffins while brainstorming new and original ways to kill. One script called for burning the body of a victim in a suburban garden fire pit — a simple and speedy procedure, according to the words on the page. My job as director is to bring those words to life on the screen. In a rare, unmasked moment I pointed out that burning a body outside of a crematorium takes many hours and would require the murderer to turn the corpse, as on a spit, to ensure its complete reduction to ash. I learnt this from the mouth of Dirk Coetzee, former head of an apartheid death squad, who knew it from his own experience.

Okay. So. We don’t burn it completely then, they shot back. But the corpse is charred beyond recognition. I don’t recall why, but on that particular morning the glee with which this brilliant thought was expressed pierced my usually implacable defences. The disassociation on which I rely wasn’t properly seated in its filter casing. On my phone I pulled up an inquest photo of the burned bodies of the Cradock Four. There, this is what bodies charred beyond recognition look like, I showed him. A thoughtful silence. Yeah, that’s too gross. And tricky for make-up. Let’s just suffocate her.

I chose this job, so I can’t say I didn’t bring this upon myself. And I don’t just specialise in murder, I also do car smashes and chase scenes and sex scenes and even simple-people-sitting-in-silence-amid-gorgeous-scenery scenes. I love my job.

Costa-Gavras’ 1982 epic Missing is the film that made me want to direct movies. It is about murder. It’s about the CIA’s involvement in the assassination of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected leader of Chile. It’s about the parents of an American who disappeared during the coup and their journey to the black heart of a bloody cover-up in search of a missing son. Jack Lemmon plays the dad and Sissy Spacek the girlfriend. Last night I tried to watch it again and discovered it's not available on any streaming service here in the US.

Missing showed me the power and the reach of cinema. I wanted that. I wanted to tell stories that way and that big. 

I love stories that entertain as much as they provoke and open worlds for me. Reality is generally not as neat as fiction. So, on the whole, I prefer making dramas to documentaries. But I would not have missed working with Max du Preez and Anneliese Burgess on the Truth Commission Special Report, documenting the harrowing, heartbreaking stories of human rights violations committed during apartheid.

We filmed the stories of survivors and witnesses of night vigil massacres, of torture by moonlight in groves of bluegum trees, of mothers who wanted the bones of their dead children so they could bury them. We hung out in the anterooms of the hearings with the killers and the torturers who had come to seek amnesty. They told us of their haunted days and sleepless nights, their broken marriages and broken lives.

One vivid afternoon, Burgess and I visited a real-life hero investigator at a sanatorium in the yellow hills outside Pretoria. This detective had broken down under the pressure of his work and he sat before us in the garden of this institution, a shell of the person he had been. He ordered tea and asked about our lives, his words slowed and slurred by tranquillisers and electric shock therapy. Another inmate, a chirpy little chap, recognised us from the Truth Commission and bounced over to say hello. Chappies Klopper had been a member of the security police death squad at Vlakplaas. Chappies, too, was “off on stress”. His roommate at the sanatorium was the former head of the firing squad at Quatro, a camp set up by the ANC resistance in Angola. What, we wondered, did those two have to chat about after lights out? That’s a movie I want to make.

Once the Truth Commission was over, I found my way to directing the kind of drama that is scripted and performed by actors. But in South Africa, reality has a way of intruding all too starkly, even into make-believe worlds. To shoot a scene with a character identifying the body of a loved one, production rented the Sofiatown morgue. We had a non-union actor lying semi-naked and freezing inside one of the few drawers not occupied by an actual corpse, patiently waiting for me to call action.

Here in Hollywood, nothing is real. And yet sometimes, actors really, really badly want to make it so. Like the charming Swede playing a Russian politburo member in a palace near Budapest which was dressed as the Kremlin in winter. On the hot summer morning of his character's demise, he collared me at base camp. He needed to take his time over the dying, he insisted. I nodded. I asked him to show me what he meant but he wasn’t in the right space yet. Okay, I said, I’ll take a look later, when we shoot. In parting I reminded him his character’s killing would probably end up taking no more than five seconds of screen time, so a simple dead stare from his seemingly lifeless body would suffice.

Much later in the day, when we got around to his close-up, after his stunt double had made excellent work of taking the bullets and crashing to the floor in the position where we now matched our actor lying on his back, he decided to go against my advice. Twenty seconds of twitching,  gasping and eye-rolling ensued. I cut. Avoiding the thunder-dark eyes of the writer-producer bearing down on me from video village, I went straight to my thespian’s side. I think it’s best, I said quietly, to keep it simple. You are dead when you hit the floor, so all we need from you is stillness. But, he insisted, that’s not real. I need to make it real. I felt the presence of the assistant director behind me, like a ticking time bomb. And the weary eyes of the crew, for whom wrap couldn’t come soon enough. I hear you, I said. And it wasn’t a lie. I did hear him. Death on TV is a sanitised fantasy, reality is far too horrific for our jump-scare numbed audiences to bear. But I wasn’t going to agree with him, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell him that absolutely nothing about his spasmic dying resembled the last moments of a person who’d been hit several times at close range by the payload of a 9mm. All we need, I repeated patiently, is your death stare, so please, just roll simply into that as the camera booms down to find your face.

The cop we killed in Athens kept things simple. He appeared in a doorway, his weapon raised, our hero actor fired half blanks at him, he dropped to the floor stone dead, like the pro stunt man he was. We cut. Make-up moved in to add blood, armourers checked the prop guns for safety, lighting was tweaked and we were almost ready to go with a new set-up, but I had only a dim awareness of all this. My phone lay in my hand, the news message still open on the screen. And someone was standing in front of me holding up a blood-spattered jacket. “Is this enough?” I looked up dazedly into the face of the costumer who repeated urgently. “Should we add more blood?”
“Oh, no.” I answered. “No. That’s enough. Thank you. Aaaand. Action!”

At lunch I found a dusty courtyard close to set where I sat on a sun-warmed step and called South Africa.

And here it is again. Night in our house. Rain. The dense song of insects. Dad in the bath telling me to think about the planets when I wandered in to complain that I couldn’t sleep. And the bullet through the window. Through his lungs. And the blood. So much blood. More blood than any Hollywood producer can possibly imagine.

And here it is again. The faint hope. We may not find the killer but at least a court will find his death was caused by the apartheid state. We may not find the killer but at least we will have made the case that the promises of the Truth Commission were not empty ones.

And here they are again. The cops, the prosecutors, the lawyers, the questions. The glacial pace at which the wheels of justice turn.

If this was a movie or a TV show, two years would not have elapsed since that day in Athens and my telling of it. If this was a movie the ensemble cast would be much smaller and their roles in the plot sharply defined. We wouldn’t spend hours on Zoom, watching lawyers and prosecutors quibble over the kind of semantics so consequential to jurisprudence and so utterly stupefying to everyone else. If this was a movie, we would be held in suspense by court room revelations instead of fear that the inquest won’t make it to the court roll before potential witnesses are dead of old age. If this was a movie there would be truth and there would be reconciliation. And there would be closure.

But this is not a movie. My dad, who is a gentle, warm and funny, if spectral, presence in my life nowadays, thinks it’s a good idea to support this new phase of the investigation, if only for the principle and the historical record. But his focus is much more on the present. On how my stepmother and sister and mother are doing, how to make sure my kids understand geography in a country where it’s not on the school syllabus, what AOC is saying in Congress. And on pushing me to make a movie from my heart again.

My father loved movies. He took my sister and I to matinees of The Pink Panther and The Party at the Avalon Albert, to the drive-in to see Bugsy Malone, and he rented 16mm prints of Monty Python skits, projecting them onto a sheet hung across the inside entrance hall.  I loved that sound, the flutter-whir of the sprocket wheel catching celluloid as the reels wound through. And I loved the gasps and the tears and the laughter around me. Mostly the laughter.

I love it still. All of it. Though I’d happily reduce my body count. Murder isn’t the only story I have to tell. 

♦ VWB ♦

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