Film review: The Ellen Pakkies Story

 In Reviews

Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story directed by Daryne Joshua and scripted by Amy Jephta, released September 2018

If you’re daunted by the prospect of two hours of despair and partial redemption, don’t be. Watching the story that you thought you knew is an education and a privilege. Witnessing the torture of a mother plagued by her tik-addicted son, you do not feel the time passing. Indeed, you wonder at first at some of the missing pieces – her other two sons feature minimally, though this might be by choice as they are both still alive. And you don’t really get a good sense of the motivation of her lawyer, Andries Samuels.

But these quibbles apart, the tragic story is sensitively and credibly told, with the two primary roles of Ellen Pakkies and her youngest son, Abie, being played with particular pathos and skill by Jill Levenberg (pictured above right, with Ellen Pakkies) and Jarrid Geduld. Both sides of the addiction rollercoaster are gruellingly portrayed – the addict’s awful spiral into a deranged and destructive state versus his mother’s desperate but ultimately fruitless struggle to get help for him.

For those who do not remember the case, which goes back a decade to 2007 when the action of the film takes place, this last point – the state’s failure to provide adequate protection and support for both addicts and their families – is cited as a primary reason for Ellen Pakkies’ sentence of 280 hours of community service, rather than going to prison for murder.

Elements of the story that I did not know make her desperation more understandable; but perhaps the saddest thing of all is the distinct feeling that the grip of the gangs – according to ongoing news reports – has if anything tightened since 2008. Certainly access to state-sponsored rehabilitation facilities has not improved, so far as the reviewer knows; and nor have conditions in places like Lavender Hill.

Although this film is not, so far as I know, based on a book (there has been a play), its script is undoubtedly life writing and its message, I suppose, one of hope for those still grappling with the grim upshot of freely-available drugs and, in particular, the horrors of crack cocaine addiction. Everyone who lives in Cape Town, has experienced addiction or has been a mother or parent, should see it. That covers an increasing number of people. The lessons here are, in that sense, universal – regardless of the story’s location. And, of course, the most important of those lessons, is that, with a little faith and hope, there is always a chance of a second chance.

Ellen went on general release in South Africa on 7 September 2018.

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