In an astoundingly ambitious new series of 12 feature-length documentaries titled “The Price of Kings” (available to watch online) the British production company Spirit Level Films challenge the perception of leadership in provocative and imaginative ways. Through a creative counterpoint between historical ‘truth’ and memory, and supported by powerful archival material, the series thoughtfully and powerfully critiques often intractably difficult political histories. Melding archival footage with interviews with some of the most prominent (and controversial) politicians and activists alive, the series delves into the careers of divisive characters in recent political history, starting with Yasser Arafat. Here’s the trailer.
At the UK premiere a moving introduction from his widow, Suha Arafat, was followed by an impassioned plea from the Palestinian ambassador who perfectly summed up the protracted struggle that the film was to address; he said: ‘we are stuck between the historical imperative and the political impossible’. And how does a documentary film deal with this impossibility? In “The Price of Kings,” it is achieved through an imaginative, malleable, deeply personal treatment of history.
“The Price of Kings” gently presents its audience with a spectrum of opinion and belief; treating both the deeply emotional and impassioned recollection as equally relevant and truthful as starkly historical ‘fact’. The moving testimonies of those who believed in Arafat’s pragmatic methods, and who credit him completely for putting Palestine back onto the map — in whatever husk of its former self — is supported brilliantly by archival material from the PLO; a plump-lipped and wide-eyed Arafat as a young freedom fighter slowly transforms into an elder statesman, exhausted by violence, negotiation, and responsibility.
In an accompanying collection of essays, titled ‘The Price of Kings: On Leadership’, contributors FW De Klerk and Nelson Mandela remind of the relationship between African liberation movements and Arafat’s PLO, and the political symmetry between two movements fighting for rights and nationhood.
In 1961, Hendrik Verwoerd, then Prime Minister of the South Africa’s racial dictatorship, said:
the Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.
Desmond Tutu, in various newspaper articles and broadcasts, has drawn parallels between modern Israel and the Apartheid regime. For example, in 2010, in an open letter to the University of Berkeley, he clearly explained:
I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.
There is also a more general historical relationship between African liberation movements and the PLO, which makes this complicated yet intriguing film about leadership and the fight for nationhood all the more compelling and far-reaching.
The next installments of the series are up for negotiation — members of the public can nominate leaders they would like to see investigated in this film series. I’d strongly urge anyone interested in African leaders who have been misunderstood or under-represented in the film to nominate. You can log in on the website and nominate a leader here. Here’s a trailer for the Peres episode:
With 12 more films to go, the series is a bold counter-production to the popular history programmes that deal with conflict either sensationally, or with a dry nervousness. The next two instalments delve into the careers of Shimon Peres, the current president of Israel, and Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Costa Rica from 2006-2010.
As a meditation on the trappings of power and the sacrifices of political responsibility, The Price of Kings series promises to be complicated and confusing, but necessarily, enjoyably, and powerfully so.
- A version of this article will appear on Permanent Plastic Helmet