Of a Black Woman Born to White Parents

Emily Meredith
Filed on December 18, 2008

DUBAI - When director Anthony Fabian first contacted Sandra Laing, a black woman born to white parents in South Africa, she was staying in a rented house.

She had been the subject of two documentary films and scores of print articles but, despite her small fame and relatively well-off family members, she had few resources.

Laing is the subject of Anthony Fabian’s debut feature film Skin, one of the films selected for the Cultural Bridge Gala at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival. After listening to an interview with Sandra on BBC seven years ago, Fabian, who has made documentary films until now, said he sought her out almost immediately.

“I just felt the injustice of the story very deeply,” Fabian said. “I wanted to know how it could happen.”

Sandra Laing, who was in Dubai for the Middle East premier of Skin Monday night, acts similarly. She answers the questions politely but briefly, only elaborating when prompted by further questions from Fabian, with whom she worked both on and off the set.

Alice Krige, the white actress who plays Sandra’s mother Sannie in the film, is a South African who also grew up during apartheid but experienced it from a very different perspective.

“Sandra and I are exact contemporaries. We grew up in South Africa living parallel lives that were very different,” Krige said. “I had the best the country had to offer in terms of education, the best in terms of everything.”
 The Dutch first colonized South Africa in the late 14th century. After several generations, many people of mixed race were light skinned enough for their black ancestry to be invisible. But when two white people with black genes had children, the children could be darker than their parents. Sandra and her younger brother both look to be of mixed race, although her younger brother is lighter.

Krige said she could trace her family members in South Africa to the Dutch in the 1600s. “There is no way that I do not have a black genetic background. I have a polygenetic profile in the way that Sandra did,” Krige said. “The absurdity of it is untenable.” While many in South Africa and throughout the world now know Sandra’s life story, her family whom she left to marry a black man, prefers to remain unknown.

“I think that her brothers took the point of view that once she decided to live as a black person, she had made an irreversible choice,” Fabian said. “I think they also feel that they too suffered,” he added, speculating that her brothers were upset that Laing decided to allow her story to be made into a book and movie.

Laing appeared sad by the ongoing estrangement with her family.

“I am sorry that I hurt them and I couldn’t apologize,” she said, talking about her parents. Fabian reminded her that she was able to reconcile with her mother, the subject of the film’s ending scene. Laing quickly, but softly, replied. “Yeah, but not my father. I always feel that I must apologize to them. They were trying to save me and I went to live with black people.”

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