Film Critic: Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling
Faith Like Potatoes is a coming-of-age drama based on Angus Buchan’s faith journey and adapted from his biography of the same name. Centred on Buchan, the film chronicles the farmer’s move from Zambia to South Africa due to political unrest, where he decided to relocate with his family and start over in Kwazulu-Natal. Taking his tractor and residing with his wife and children in a caravan, the leap of faith found him pushed to the limits and living by his wits – forced to confront his spirituality under duress and in the wake of natural disasters and great personal loss.
This faith-based drama is directed by and adapted to screen by Regardt van der Bergh, who is known for Tornado and the Kalahari Whisperer, Hansie, Klein Karoo and Uitvlucht. An actor turned director, van der Bergh has a good understanding of the craft from both sides of the camera with over 50 years of experience. Having directed Jesus the Christ, it’s clear that he has a vested interest in stories with Christian values or messages. Opting to tell Angus Buchan’s story, Faith Like Potatoes, it’s no secret that this is an inspirational film with a view to telling of a man’s redemption from self-driven to faith-led.
Typically faith-based films in this genre tend towards melodrama, trading in extremes when it comes to exploring God’s faith, hope and love in the lives of their characters. There’s often an inherent cheesiness that can undermine the drama as storytellers try to land sweeping ideas and anchor miracles. Relying on churches to gather extras and trying to work a few miracles of their own when it comes to modest budgets, there’s also a tendency for burgeoning casts to have a few weak links. While Faith Like Potatoes does succumb to these elements, trying to encapsulate several major events into the space of a feature film, it mostly manages to keep its head above water.
Until Buchan’s revelation in church, the film operates with a TV movie feel, veering from modest dramatisation to more inspired cinematic moments. Starting off a bit slow as Buchan finds his new life in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, the idea of a pioneer starting from scratch in a foreign land becomes more about community impact as he integrates and reforms his attitude. Adapting to the farmer subculture, learning Zulu to communicate with farm workers and entrenching himself in the church, Faith Like Potatoes shows how a man moves from a self-centred survival instinct to an other-centred disposition.
The cast is led by Frank Rautenbach in an earnest and emphatic performance as Buchan as he moves through various seasons. At first short-tempered – the character’s arc has a raw honesty, showing how by leaning into God, Buchan’s life and faith was transformed to the point of wanting to serve others. Turning from a frustrated farmer to a preacher with a miraculous testimony, the journey shows a day/night transition. Rautenbach is supported by Jeanne Wilhelm, Sean Cameron Michael and Hamilton Dlamini as his wife Jill, brother Fergus and second-in-command, Simeon. While generally-speaking, there’s an inconsistency to the ensemble and performances, Dlamini won a SAFTA for his stoic and dependable supporting role.
Faith Like Potatoes is a modest production with a strong Christian slant, which does seem to be primarily aimed at church-going folks. Geared more towards the power of Buchan’s story, which has led to him leading major men’s conferences, execution and style isn’t the focus. The movie really just has to be good enough to hold all the pieces together and be convincing enough to see action and emotion power home in an altogether life-affirming and satisfying manner. To this end, while it operates with a distinct TV quality… it succeeds in telling the story with heart and a degree of flair.
Exploring some powerful moments in Buchan’s life, this modest production manages to push through stilted drama towards impact value. Regardt van der Bergh tries to steer away from preaching to the choir, managing to ground Buchan’s character in an unusually honest depiction with noble aspirations, but the movie assumes its speaking to a church-going audience. The shaggy storytelling finds Buchan being shaped by his circumstances before seeing beyond these limitations, but the tapestry of highs and lows start to play like a trailer for a much broader work. Aiming to eliminate grey area, Faith Like Potatoes mostly deals in absolutes to the detriment of nuance but stays the course thanks to the sincerity of its ambitions.
As a faith-based TV movie and chronicle of a farmer’s spirituality, you will probably know what you’re getting yourself into based on the title, genre and underlying premise. Faith Like Potatoes isn’t a good film, skirting over a number of social issues in favour of its lead’s spiritual awakening, targeting Christian audiences enough to request prior permission for screenings in churches. While it touches on some fascinating aspects of Buchan’s walk of faith, the supporting characters remain distant and anonymous, serving as pawns rather than fully-fledged beings. Much like a parable, the overarching story and characters has great meaning and power in its simplicity and symbolism but this limits authenticity, choosing earnest rousing emotional hues over the roots of dramatic realism.
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