Mandela doco captures the real man

Filmmaker Khalo Matabane tries to pinpoint the precise nature of Mandela's legacy.
Filmmaker Khalo Matabane tries to pinpoint the precise nature of Mandela's legacy.

A new documentary spotlights the impact Nelson Mandela's name had on South Africa's political landscape

The eulogies that flowed after the death of Nelson Mandela in December included predictable pieties from political leaders whose governments gladly accepted his status as a terrorist when it suited their foreign policy.

But the virtual beatification of the political prisoner who became the inspirational first president of post-apartheid South Africa troubled many of his compatriots.

Among them was film-maker Khalo Matabane, whose documentary, Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me, takes a provocatively nuanced view of a man canonised by history.

Constructed, as its original title A Letter to Nelson Mandela suggests, as an address to the man black South Africans called by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, the film is an extended act of wondering about how Mandela's name became shorthand for the idea that South Africa's problems ended with his release and election.

Matabane interviews a roll-call of luminaries including the Dalai Lama and South Africans celebrated and unknown, in an attempt to identify the precise nature of his legacy. In the process, he turns in an exemplary piece of documentary film-making that acknowledges that the slippery thing we call truth changes according to the angle of view.

Speaking by phone from South Africa, Matabane says that Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, the cinema's pre-eminent meditation on unreliable narrative, was an inspiration.

"It had a big influence because of its central notion which is: what is true? As great as Nelson Mandela was, he also suffered from what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the danger of a single narrative.

"Most of the stuff you see in documentaries and read in books depicts a forgiving, infallible man. But he is more than that."

Liberals outside South Africa have swallowed whole the "single narrative of the one man who held South Africa together", but the man who emerges from others' memories is by turns cold as ice and given to violent tempers. We are confronted with the idea that he espoused reconciliation not as a principle, but as political pragmatism.

Unsurprisingly, Matabane doesn't claim to have captured the "real" Mandela, whoever that might be. "Because I never interviewed him - he was too old and frail - those are perceptions of other people. The truth about him is somewhere in the contradictions of what people say about him."

A frequent presence in the film, largely in a questing voiceover, Matabane says he struggles with the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation.

"Every time people say South Africa is such an extraordinary country because people forgave each other, I ask 'but who paid the price?'.

"White South Africans - I am generalising here - continue to be blase about history and say "let's move on'. Yet the inequalities persist. If those who committed crimes in the apartheid era were punished, perhaps our children and grandchildren would have a different society.

"Inequality is largely still racialised. Blacks are poor, marginalised, landless and without access to education and health care - excluded from the narrative of South Africa.

"Society still has to transform to realise the dream of Nelson Mandela."

What: Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me
Where and when: Documentary Edge Festival, Q Theatre, screening tomorrow, Saturday and Saturday week.
Info: documentaryedge.org.nz

- TimeOut

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