It is a warm and breezy Sunday afternoon in Toronto, just the kind of weather that makes us question whether we should be going into a dark movie house to catch one the “hottest” screenings at this year’s international film fest, or hanging a left to a sunny outdoor patio to quench our thirst with a cold beer and good conversation. The ticket-holders queue is the beginning of what was to be a long and painful afternoon. The “festival of festivals”, as the Toronto International Film Festival (September 5-15) is regarded by many, has become something of a cattle drive for viewers of the common garden variety: no chance of jumping the queue, Jozi-style; these two South Africans are promptly herded, with border-collie precision, to the back of the 0.5km line, as if to share in a little of that long walk to freedom of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela before the curtain is raised on the celluloid version. Thus, we join nearly 1,500 others in the Princess of Wales Theatre – no irony lost on the screening venue, its colonial heritage clearly stamped in brocade and gold plate, and its namesake, the departed Diana, being another overstated fan of the aforementioned ‘Madiba’: the symbol of a brand of truth and reconciliation that has forgiven her ancestors their trespasses for 400 years and counting.
Once seated we are given a snappy introduction to the director of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a young Brit, Justin Chadwick (resume includes The Other Boleyn Girl), who assures us that prior to shooting the film he spent a year in South Africa, as a new breed of “outsider” – the “listening” and “observing” type (seemingly familiar with the current-speak as per Guide to a Post-Colonial Gaze), who “talked with the family” and “the comrades” (another homogenous brand of characters that doth a struggle make) and followed the sage advice of one, unnamed member of the latter lot, who said, “be sure to tell the story of the man.”
Such words of commitment provide but temporary respite from those of the renowned South African producer, Anant Singh (Yesterday), who offers a slick historical overview of the genesis of the most expensive South African film made to date, focusing on his personal relationship with Mandela, to whom he wrote letters as young, ‘activist’ filmmaker (seemingly to get his paws on the rights to the story of stories). And here he is, finally, on a stage at one of the world’s most moneyed film festivals, offering the big budget work – 30 script drafts and nearly 25 years in the making (with a little help from Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein). As the afternoon progresses we are apt to conclude that another 25 years might have been called for.
But the stage is set and the curtain goes up on what we suspected all along was going to be a watered-down take on “the man” and the many events and people that shaped him. What we get is a vessel so shot through with holes as to render Mandela a one-dimensional messiah, his comrades mere disciples, and a mass movement of millions of South Africans either hapless victims, flag-waving backdrops who burst into song at mass rallies (in poorly translated English to accommodate those for whom the country’s political vernacular remains unsubtitleable), or marauding perpetrators of violence.
As if picked at random from a Wikipedia version of Long Walk to Freedom – Mandela’s autobiography – are snippets of life, cobbled together, enacted by static characters and filtered through lazy and hazy dialogue as scripted by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables); left to wander in life, love and struggle across the panoramic beauty of rural Eastern Cape (cue Lion King soundtrack, panning shots of “the world in one country”, and Madiba, as a young Xhosa initiate, dripping African manhood, aka virile snorting steed, as he emerges from the fresh river waters down in Qunu); through the dusty streets of Orlando or Alexandra in his perfectly pressed suits; or to take a moment to fire a few rounds from a Makarov pistol in a generic “military training camp in North Africa”, before returning in the next scene, as a fully-fledged cadre of UmKhonto we Sizwe, to blow an apartheid landmark to smithereens … stopping neither for breath or a breath of context.
The assumption of the filmmakers seems to be that we have all read the book (and absorbed all the detail), or know the history of South Africa (and have forgotten it), or have heard enough about Mandela to fill in the blanks or to make it up as the film rolls along. Interspersed at odd moments throughout are archival clips – perhaps an attempt to meld drama and documentary at key moments in the script, but one that only serves to give Bono’s voice another cameo, Bob Marley’s War a South African backdrop, and the film editor a lousy reputation for integrating still footage. For such a big budget bang, the least the makers could have ensured was context, continuity and clarity for the buck. But they were having none of that, and so neither are we!
More offensive is the neutralizing or utter absence of key figures in the life of Mandela, those who shaped his very early politics and helped to develop and sustain his leadership of the African National Congress – a liberation movement of people of many persuasions – the very people who featured throughout his book, yet who the filmmakers choose to ignore or reduce to casual extras. We hear the name Walter Sisulu once or twice as Mandela engages with a group of clearly unidentified men in the first hour of the film, and because we know the history can safely pick him out in the crowd. Ahmed (Kathy) Kathrada is given a voice (in all of three scenes) and Oliver Tambo has one line in a fleeting scene related to the decision to take up armed struggle. Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi play the parts of invisible presence, ghosts of the Rivonia Trial and Robben Island, silenced by a script that has them cast as observers of history, witnesses rather to the savvy and bravery of Madiba. A scene in which the bereft Mandela is mourning his son, alone in a dank cell on Robben Island, becomes a source of confusion rather than empathy. For here, we have Tata Sisulu escorted into Madiba’s cell to offer him solace, a comforting embrace. Yet, until this point, the film establishes Madiba as the only person bold and daring enough to demand anything of the gaolers. How on earth did the others act without him!
Indeed, Mandela “becomes” not through any influence or engagement with others, but as if out of the fresh air of his Eastern Cape beginnings and even these are addressed fleetingly and with no reference to his Royal House of Thembu lineage and his mission school early education. No exploration either of Mandela’s attendance at Fort Hare University and later the University of the Witwatersrand, the former a centre of radical politics at the time, and how these environments influenced “the story of the man”.
Events also get short shrift. The history behind the murders at Sharpeville, for example, are absent in the film: we get a brief scene dated ‘Sharpeville, 1963’, with the homogenous angry masses on one side of the fence, and on the other a group of maniacal armed cops ready to mow them down before we can say, “Where’s the context? How did we get here?” Where is Robert Sobukwe? Where is the Pan Africanist Congress breakaway? Where is the very backstory that propelled the ANC and Mandela into armed struggle in the first place? Sobukwe not sexy enough? Budget not beefy enough for the meat of history? And why not a whisper, not a glimpse, not even a passing reference later in the chronology to Steve Biko, whose presence of mind, body and sociopolitical thought was certainly not lost on Nelson Mandela and had profound influence on the activism and self-actualization of an entire generation of South Africans. The Soweto uprising of 1976 is but a blip on the screen before being cut to shreds in vaguely contextualized scenes about the radicalization of Winnie Mandela and her association with the controversial Mandela Football Club.
Where are the struggling masses in all this? Where is the trade union movement that mobilized and led mass campaigns of resistance and economic boycott, which made the country ungovernable and, along with international pressure, made Mandela’s release imminent? Getting shot, beaten up, running amok or shouting “Amandla! Mayibuye Africa!” (in Dolby surround-sound, for real people’s power), bereft of voice otherwise, if we are to believe what we see on the screen! Yet hardly should we expect reference to Sobukwe, Biko, COSATU and the 76ers when absent from the start are the Communists. The Party is literally nowhere to be found in the episodic frenzy of the life of a cardboard cut-out. If the film hasn’t achieved artistic greatness, it certainly can be lauded for the art of historical erasure.
Tied to this absence is the silencing of the historical production of the idea of non-racialism. Through the SACP and the various congresses (in particular the Indian Congress) the liberation movement began to imagine the future nation as one belonging to “all who live in it – black and white”. Indeed, the idea was one that Madiba had to be convinced of. But if you haven’t read the book, the screen version of Long Walk to Freedom would have you believing that it was Madiba’s good heart that alone articulated a vision of multi/non-racialism. Communists are nowhere to be found because, frankly, neither is the ANC, nor the ANC Youth League that radicalized Congress.
The director admits that cramming Long Walk to Freedom into two hours of screen time was a big ask, but to gloss over a people’s history to make it seemingly one man’s alone is another mark against a Hollywood rendering that perpetuates all that is wrong about the iconizing of Mandela and the continued neutralizing of ordinary mass action and struggles for justice. The struggle for emancipation from apartheid colonialism thus becomes conflated with the biography of one person – the struggle is subordinated to the life of Mandela, whereas he had certainly meant it as the opposite (cf. Mandela, The Struggle is my Life). As a result of this film rendering, Mandela the leader becomes the patriarch, the finger-wagging father who carries the moral staff and the rest of “the people” are children to be taught to behave. Mandela the thoughtful peace-maker is consistently juxtaposed both rhetorically and visually with the violence of black masses – seemingly gifted at reigning in the instinctive (black) drive for revenge.
The Manichean approach to the world of anti-apartheid struggle is nowhere more obviously presented than in the characters of Winnie Madikizela and Nelson Mandela. Where Winnie is fuelled by hatred, Madiba is fuelled by love; where Winnie’s prison experience causes her descent into the madness of vengeance, Mandela’s strengthens his capacity to be a better man. This juxtaposition is an unfair one. Winnie faced the terror of years of solitary confinement and banishment. Madiba had community, albeit in conditions of incarceration with all its humiliations. And that is what is truly missing from this story. How fascinating to understand the relationships between the men of Robben Island that sustained them for a significant chunk of their lives. How interesting to get to grips with how their emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual longings were met or sublimated. How necessary to learn about the political perspectives negotiated and unfolding over many years and with younger generations being imprisoned with the stalwarts. In other words, how wonderful a film about an African man that honours him with the depth of an interior (human) life that informs and is informed by his context.
The film-makers suggest that they do just this by showing Mandela, warts and all. The expose, however, lacks substance. He is shown early on as a womanizer and in one scene he beats his first wife, Evelyn. There is no depth to these actions – their banality met only with the equally banal portrait of the older and apparently non-womanizing Mandela, who at one point lectures Winnie about the importance of loyalty (both to him and the ANC). It is a scene devoid of any reflexive power. Winnie, after all, acted no differently than the younger Mandela in her defiance and promiscuity. She was no less discrete. But as a woman and the wife of an icon we are asked to demand other than what we afford “the leader”.
It is almost a quarter century since Njabulo Ndebele made a call for a ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’ and it seems in the time it took to make this film, the producers have held on tight to the easier expression of spectacle. Missing are the nuances of character, the complexities of relationships, the very strong traditions of debate and thrashing out of ideas and strategies over many years of struggle, incarceration and negotiation. These are inherent to the movement that made Mandela – indeed, the essence of history and biography that will never be captured in shoddy filmmaking.
Were we so naive to believe that Singh and Weinstein would raise the cash for anything but a Hollywood re-versioning (albeit one that reportedly got the blessing of Madiba himself, though in what state he was in to give the thumbs-up is unclear), or that Justin Chadwick could possibly have made “Long Walk to Freedom” anything but a stroll around the block, we might have been hopeful for an entertaining and poignant afternoon at the movies.