Scene from "Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story" (2018)

Scene from Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story (2018)

Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, is based on true events: the widely publicized 2007 trial of one of the few documented cases of a mother killing her adult son. Knowing the outcome of the story doesn’t hint at the journey. America has been suffering under the scourge of crystal meth addiction. It’s come to our screens this season in the glossy Ben is Back and A Beautiful Boy. The South African entry in the Foreign Film category deals with the same issue but without the gloss.

Ellen, a God-fearing domestic worker lives in the Cape Flats, eking out a living with optimism. She’s one of those people who are the unseen backbone of life. They believe that if they do the right thing, the right thing will happen to them. Her youngest son is struggling with school and his place in society – like a lot of children on the brink of adulthood. When it comes to light that the man he called his father is not, and he discovers the truth of his inception, he tries to deal with it, but his peers have their own version of events, and while defending his mother, he gets into an altercation and is thrown out of school.

This is the tipping point which takes him down a road of circumstances that never work out. The road he takes is where the heartbreak lies and his eventual addiction to crystal meth feels almost ordained. The toll on his mother as she tries to come to terms with who her son has become captures the torture of loving someone as they abuse you. In the end, forgiveness gives out to self-preservation: the police are called and the boy is arrested. When released, he breaks in and steals what he can, then becomes physically abusive.

Ultimately, the family must resort to metal gates to keep him at bay. They are living a life sentence behind burglar bars that imprison them as much as a jail would and Ellen’s son is the jail keeper and torturer. The scenes of him pleading to be let in while his mother tries to resist her instinct to help her son will break you – and help you understand what families endure when someone they love is run by their addiction. This is not a middle-class home. This is a family who needs society’s help, and society fails them.

Much of the power of the film is provided by the subtle interpretation of the titular character by Jill Levenberg. The emotions of love, desperation, hurt and unceasing hope that’s eroded by sly treachery in the quest for the next hit, are palpable. The film provides insight into the opposing emotions of compassion and exhaustion, of hope which is continually disappointed and betrayed. It shows that crystal meth makes victims of those who abuse it as well as those who are abused by the addicted.

Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story was directed by Daryne Joshua and written by Amy Jephta.