Directed by Zwelethu Radebe (“The Hajji”), The Hangman follows a day in the life of Khetha (played by Thato Dhladla as an adult and Mxolisi Matlabe in flashbacks).
We follow this prison guard in the death row facility of a South African prison in 1989 as he meets with his father (Khulu Skenjana), imprisoned years ago for murder and now about to be executed.
Khetha, who never knew his father went to prison, resents him for leaving him and his mother (Lerato Mvelase) alone and forcing him to support the family when he still was a young child, but as they finally spend time face to face after years of silence, Khetha’s father reveals the truth of what really happened.
The viewer is left in the dark for most of the film, trying to piece out who these characters are and what are their stories. Unfortunately, once everything is revealed to both Khetha and the viewer, the latter never feels the weight of these revelations, because, unlike the protagonist, we haven’t spent years looking for the truth; on the contrary, we have just spent a dozen minutes with characters who we are still trying to understand.
The weight of a father’s disappearance, a mother’s silence, of years of struggle, never hits the viewer as much as it should despite the actors’ talent.
Parts of the story also deserved to be fleshed out more, although this would have probably necessitated a longer runtime than 22 minutes.
There are fascinating ideas buried inside the film that should have been brought to the surface, like the fact that Khetha’s father was victim of racial prejudices and is now at the mercy of majority white guards, with which Khetha himself is siding.
This is a pain as interesting as the secret Khetha discovers and could have added to his internal struggle, but it is never properly explored and the viewer always feels like someone watching rather than feeling the events.
Despite these weaknesses in the story, The Hangman is strong in other ways: Ofentse Mwase’s cinematography is great and the actors are all talented. And while it fails in many ways, the story is still a touching one.