Keepers of Memory, 2004. A Tutsi herdsman and genocide survivor sits atop a pastoral outpost on the side of a hill in Bisesero, reflects on the loss of his family and friends during the 100 day massacre, wistfully looks out into the horizon, and comments, “This place used to be beautiful. Now the only beauty is the skeletons on the mountains”. In a subsequent train of thought, he criticizes the continued re-appearance (and opportunism) of international journalists in the area since the end of the genocide to conduct interviews with survivors, only to go away and effect little change in their situation since 1994: “Can’t you see we’re dying?” It is a sentiment of profound desolation, resignation, unreconciled grief, and impotence that would echo through the testimonials of several survivors at each of six major sites of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who have, in their own individual ways, become keepers of the dead by memorializing the massacre sites and serving as first-hand witnesses to articulate the depth of tragedy. A middle-aged woman (and sole survivor of her family) who was shot by the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) in her own home recounts how she lay for days on the floor gravely wounded amidst the bodies of her family, unable to move and afraid to call out for fear that the gunmen would again return (as they had randomly done in the villages for several days to ensure that there were no survivors) and that, in her immobility and dire thirst, had resorted to drinking from a pool of blood that had collected near her in a (perceived) moment of weakness. Ten years later, she continues to regret her actions and feels forever destined to be haunted by her lost loved ones every time she takes a drink of water, eternally bound in the memory of their dying blood bond. Another woman who bears the physical scars from massive head wounds suffered during the massacre in her village expresses her strong objection to cover her with a head scarf as often suggested by well-intentioned people around her, arguing that her disfigurement serves as a constant, cautionary reminder to everyone on humankind’s innate capacity for evil. At another site, a humble, religious man respectfully tends to a mass grave site and offers another explanation to the tragedy: “How can Christians kill other Christians? Surely they were possessed by Satan.” At another site, a genial and reserved elderly woman on her way to church passes by a disused church that had been the site of another massacre and is being used to house the remains of genocide victims that still continue to be unearthed, and decides to pick some wild flowers to be placed among the skeletons, her countenance becoming increasingly impassioned and visibly distraught as she recounts her personal experience amidst the overwhelming quantity of skeletons neatly arranged before her, before apologizing to the off-screen interviewer (filmmaker Eric Kabera) for losing her composure. Keepers of Memory is a visceral, thoughtful, and deeply personal account of the human tragedy that continues to haunt its often forgotten, marginalized, and globally abandoned survivors. Contrasting the inarticulable, yet intimately heart-rending grief of the victims with the carefully wordsmithed, olive branch speeches from representatives of the international community eager to put its collective ignominious accountability behind (for callous and inhumanely reckless bureaucratic policies that exacerbated the tragedy) by acknowledging its failure to intervene, the film serves as a provocative and powerfully moving indictment of factionalism, moral complicity through abstention and inertia, and human indifference.
Mother’s Day, 2004. An idiosyncratically offbeat, indelibly unique, and narratively incapsulable fusion of social satire, nursery rhyme, musical fantasy, and interpretive dance, Mother’s Day is based on an ancient Zimbabwean cautionary folktale of a young, impoverished family driven to famine by a lazy, selfish husband. When the mother, reduced to collecting insects for her children’s dinner, refuses to allow her husband to partake in their meager meal until he can provide food for the table, the father leaves home and devises a means to exact revenge on his wife and, in the process, bring home his next meal. During the Q&A with filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, a member of the audience had expressed trepidation over the film’s plot with respect to how people – particularly Westerners – would receive such a barbaric depiction of Africans by Africans, commenting that the images, to some extent, seemed to prey on Western cultural stereotypes. (While I do not share the view that the film would necessarily reinforce racial stereotypes because of the obvious grotesqueness in the implementation and execution of the story, I can certainly understand this sense of apprehension.) Dangarembga responded that from her experience with previous international screenings, audiences who were familiar with the source of the ancient folktale have tended to find the innate humor in the absurdity of the story, while some members of the audience who were unfamiliar with the folktale expressed a similar ambivalence over the caricatured depiction. Rather than a specific view of a culture or a people, Dangarembga explained that she envisioned the film as a universal parable on greed and man’s innate capacity for human cruelty. To this end, the primitive, atemporal empty landscape, stripped of identification, seems ideally suited to this eccentric, whimsical fable – demarcating, not the limits of the land, but the limits of the self and the limitlessness of human imagination.
Having looked the beast of the past in the eyes, having asked and received forgiveness…let us shut the door on the past – not to forget it – but to allow it not to imprison us.
– Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
A haggard, visibly distracted, and apprehensive middle-aged man and former police officer named Tertius Coetzee, carrying only a suitcase and an ample assortment of prescription medication that have been haphazardly accumulated in the passenger seat of his cluttered automobile, drives mechanically through the dusty, isolated roads that lead to the rural South African fishing village of Paternoster (literally, Our Father) and checks into a hotel on the outskirts of town. With the reluctant assistance of the local parish priest, Coetzee has asked to meet the equally apprehensive Grootboom family whose eldest (and perhaps, favorite) son, a university student and apartheid-era activist named Daniel had been tortured and killed ten years earlier by Coetzee and his colleagues during interrogation, concealing his execution by staging his death as a random carjacking. The elder Grootbooms politely accept the stranger’s presence in their home and offer of condolences, reluctant to ask questions on the unimaginable horror surrounding the circumstances of Daniel’s death and, in their awkward, suffering silence, perhaps tacitly encouraging Coetzee to promptly leave, unable to bear the sight of their son’s killer and the memory of their unreconciled tragedy. But the Grootboom’s children seem less tolerant of the seemingly troubled and penitent Coetzee’s presence in their humble community – their youngest son Ernst physically attacks him without provocation and their daughter Sannie ventures out to place a covert call to Daniel’s best friend, alerting him of Coetzee’s arrival at Paternoster and planting the idea that he assemble his band of former radicals to ambush Coetzee in retaliation for her brother’s death. Receiving instruction to keep Coetzee in town until Daniel’s friends arrive the next day, Sannie decides to invite Coetzee into their home against the strong objection of her still grieving parents, ostensibly under the pretense of hearing the explicit details of her brother’s suppressed history of militant resistance (an involvement that included perpetrating acts of sabotage) that inevitably lead to his death. However, when Coetzee’s assassins fail to show up at the appointed hour, the Grootboom children soon find themselves orchestrating additional meetings between Coetzee and their parents under the ruse of working towards reconciliation and finding common ground in order to keep him from leaving town and escaping retribution. Set in the aftermath of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Ian Gabriel’s film is an articulate, provocative, and haunting examination of the complex and integrally soul-searching nature of forgiveness: both from the perspective from those who seek it, and from those of whom it is asked. Featuring a strong lead cast, a poignant and compelling script, and emotionally engaging, multi-dimensional characters, Forgiveness is a compassionate, elegantly humanist, and intrinsically spiritual portrait of guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and personal closure.
The Colonial Misunderstanding, 2004. In an early episode, a reverend from Cameroon who is working towards the restoration and proper attribution of a native Jamaican missionary, Joseph Merrick’s historical importance in the Christianization of the country during the early half of the 1800s (a historical suppression that, in the light of colonialization in the latter half of the 1800s, instead became attributed to the British missionary, Alfred Saker) expounds on the fundamental difference between Merrick and Saker’s approach to ministry, explaining that Merrick saw God within the souls of the native African as they were, and believed that his mission was to work from this level of intrinsic human commonality and elevate them through the Word of God, while Saker, in contrast, set western Christian ideals as the sole paradigm for successful conversion. Nevertheless, the legacy of either missionary’s early groundwork towards the Christianization of West Africa would be destined to be further eroded and trivialized in the annals of (Western authored) history with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, as European countries sought to carve up the continent for exploitation of raw materials – and subsequently, forced, unpaid labor – under the guise of “educating the savages” (many of whom had already been converted to Christianity before the advent of the “enlightened mandate”). It is this intrinsic correlation between colonialists and missionaries that a second reverend would later (appropriately) conclude as the historical conversion of West Africa, not to the Word of God, but to “the Word of Otto von Bismarck”.
Perhaps the most egregious and morally reprehensible example of this (and provides the inferential context to the film’s title) is Germany’s historical mistreatment and marginalization of the Herero people. Noting that native Africans did not possess the concept of private land ownership (believing that God owned all the land, and the people are only its guardians), the film illustrates the grave “misunderstanding” that resulted when Germans arrived in the region and sought to buy land from the local tribal chiefs who, in turn, misinterpreted the gesture by the Westerners as seeking permission to use the land (After all, as a commenter lightheartedly muses, how can the Europeans take the land back with them?). When the settlers then transferred ownership among other non-native settlers, the chief of the Herero tribe (and converted Christian), Samuel Maherero, led an uprising to drive the new (and from the indigenous people’s perspective, tribally unnegotiated and, therefore, trespassing) German settlers out, an act that would consequently escalate to war and lead to the attempted genocide of the Herero people through military orders to exterminate all Herero men in retaliation for the uprising, as well as to shoot “above the heads of women and children” in order to drive them deep into the desert where they would face certain death through starvation and disease. Furthermore, the surviving Herero people would later be interned in forced work camps to serve as free labor to feed the industries of the Industrial Revolution. As the film appropriately concludes, this early example of German colonialist policy of tribal extermination and forced internment towards the Herero people would provide the brutal paradigm – and ominously foreshadow – the tragedy of the Holocaust. Tracing the complex, often painful and inhumane trajectory of colonialization under the thinly veiled guise of divine, Western intervention, filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno presents a fascinating, intelligently constructed, and (personally) illuminating exposition on the history, evolution, and residual consequences of colonialism in Africa. By contrasting the impressive, architectural infrastructure and soulless, modernized landscape of Wuppertall, Germany against the subhuman conditions and tinderbox construction of an African resettlement camp as refugees, nevertheless, take the initiative to build a makeshift church in order to have a place to conduct their daily worship, the film serves as a thoughtful and profoundly articulate portrait of colonialism’s unreconciled, bifurcated legacy.
Me and My White Pal, 2003. A graduate student from Burkina Faso named Mamadi, forced to find last-minute employment in order to cover his tuition and housing expenses after his educational grants fail to materialize at the local embassy, calls on a fellow countryman and distant cousin – a politically frustrated, self-exiled intellectual with a slew of unpracticed doctoral degrees hung on his wall – to help him obtain a job at his elder cousin’s place of employment: the parking garage. Working in the uneventful tedium of the off-shift hours as a parking attendant, Mamadi occupies his time by working on his thesis, watching the surveillance cameras positioned throughout the facility through his auto-switching monitor, and chatting up personable, attractive young women, often in the presence of their lovers (alluding to stereotypes of African libido and expatriates who eagerly abandon their hometown sweethearts to embark on affairs with people outside of their race). One day, while watching an over-amorous couple from the surveillance monitor, Mamadi accidentally triggers the facility alarm. In the confusion, a pair of drug dealers who had been waiting inside the facility for a pre-arranged transaction is forced to abandon their plan, scurry their package into a dimly lit area for later retrieval, and nonchalantly drive off from the premises. Retrieving the curious package from its makeshift hiding place, the naïve Mamadi asks the assistance of his friend Franck to identify the contents and who, in turn, immediately realizes the nefarious (and undoubtedly fatal) implications of Mamadi’s impulsive intervention. Now on the run from relentless (and ever-closing) thugs, Franck and Mamadi decide to hide out in Mamedi’s native hometown, only to run into a different set of challenges in the bucolic paradise. Me and My White Pal is a wry, unassuming, and effervescent, but incisive and acutely observed satire on social stereotypes, implicit racism, and cultural perception. By presenting a cross-cultural perspective of what is means to be a foreigner – for both Mamadi in France and subsequently, Franck in Burkina Faso – Pierre Yameogo illustrates the folly of broad stroke, popular misconceptions of races and societies that contribute to an atmosphere of culturally fostered ignorance, propagation of cultural myths, and sense of isolating otherness: the unbridled riches of African expatriates living in (or returning from) the West (and by the same token, Westerners who visit the country), the rampancy of AIDS and famine in Africa, the superficial view of all foreigners as illegal aliens. Moreover, through Mamedi’s frustrated efforts to study abroad so that he may return home and obtain a civil service position in order to effect change within his beloved country, Yameogo implicitly underscores the rampant corruption and propagandization of the international successes achieved by native scholars, intellectuals, and self-made expatriates endemic in many African countries that effectively serve to stifle progress and socio-economic change and reinforce the lopsided imbalance of power to a select, political elite.
Black Sushi, 2003. A newly paroled Zulu man named Zama walks out of prison and into a waiting car driven by his best friend and former accomplice, Respect, who immediately recruits him as a hired muscle for a planned heist. Eager to rebuild his life and make a clean break from his criminal past, Zama walks away from his friend and into a sushi bar to inquire about a help wanted sign posted on the store window. Working in the backroom as the restaurant’s dishwasher and janitor, Zama is intrigued by the sushi chef, Mi’s skill and presentation and asks the skeptical proprietor to teach him his trade. However, when Mi expresses his skepticism on Zama’s worthiness to become his apprentice, the disillusioned young man begins to fall back into his familiar, self-destructive routines. Whimsical and lighthearted, Black Sushi is a clever and engaging parable on perseverance, rehabilitation, and enlightenment. In the film’s climactic episode, Zama peels the layers of gluten paste that have coated his hands at work, symbolically sloughing off the coarse, hardened skin that represents (and has bounded him to) his past, transforming them into delicate instruments necessary for his new found craft. It is in this image of transformation and tabula rasa that filmmaker Dean Blumberg allegorically reflects the image of new South Africa, a nation moving forward from its grievous history through atonement, creativity, hard work, open-mindedness, and cross-cultural respect.
A South African Love Story – Walter and Albertine Sisulu, 2004. In an interview conducted near the conclusion of the film, A South African Love Story – Walter and Albertine Sisulu, a journalist describes Walter Sisulu’s deliberately low-key, but profoundly influential role in the struggle to liberate South Africa from apartheid and successfully lay the groundwork for multi-racial elections in the country as that “not of the king, but the kingmaker”. It is a terse and enlightened observation that incisively encapsulates Sisulu’s fiercely intelligent, tenacious, and determined, yet humble, self-effacing, and disarmingly affable personality. The son of an interracial relationship who achieved a considerable measure of success in his professional life at a time when apartheid was still deeply entrenched, Sisulu became a formidable and enduring influence in the shaping of the African National Congress resistance movement during the 1930s and who, in the early 1940s, recruited and mentored a fiery, young (and then more militant) charismatic radical named Nelson Mandela and instilled in him a more deliberative and grounded approach to diplomacy and activism. However, Sisulu’s leadership and commitment to the anti-apartheid movement would also be matched by his equally resilient and determined wife, Albertine, a nurse by vocation whose innate capacity to nurture and instill hope led to a parallel women’s movement that led to the historic march in Pretoria that ultimately ushered a more globalized, humanitarian movement towards a more encompassing social equality. Affectionately tracing the evolution of Walter and Albertine Sisulu’s remarkable – and inspirational – life together, from their unusual courtship (Albertine had initially rejected Walter’s proposal with the unexpected news that she already had children, having adopted her siblings when her father died), to their supportive marriage of equals (the couple cultivated each other’s self-education and personal growth through substantive, everyday discourses on such diverse subjects as politics, philosophy, and culture), to Walter’s solitary confinement on Robben Island for his key role in the plotting of the Rivonia Uprising (in a political round-up and life sentencing of several high-ranking ANC leaders designed to suppress the movement), to Albertine and the children’s continued political activism and government harassment after Walter’s incarceration, to the commutation of Sisulu and Mandela’s life sentences and subsequent dismantling of apartheid, and finally, to the successful implementation of the first post-apartheid, multi-racial elections in South Africa, filmmaker Toni Strasburg presents an intimate, illuminating, and ennobled portrait of self-sacrifice, commitment, and enduring love in the face of oppression, inhumanity, interminable separation, and national struggle.
Keita, The Heritage of the Griot, 1995. One day, in the rural village of Wagadu, a slumbering griot (traditional tale-teller) named Djéliba is visited by the spirit of an ancient hunter and oracle as he recounts in his dreams the legend of a tribesman on the dawn of civilization who rose up and proclaimed himself king of Mandé with the neutral consent of his village, assuming the name Konaté after their collective response, “konaté” (“No one hates you”), to his declaration of self-empowerment. Awakening with a sense of inexorable destiny and divine purpose, Djéliba decides to undertake a long journey into the city in order to begin the indoctrination of the king’s descendant, a young boy named Mabo Keita who, upon his initial encounter, is sitting on the front porch of his home reading the sterile and impersonal explanation of humanity’s evolution provided by Darwin’s Theory. Providing Mabo with a tantalizing glimpse of his ancestral history as a descendant, not that of apes, but of an ancient king named Sundjata, the son of Konaté and his second wife, an outcast hunchback who possesses mystical powers of natural transformation (nyama) named Sogolon, Mabo is immediately taken with the griot’s fanciful and exotic story that provides the contextual background for the origin of his name that, as Djéliba cautiously explains, would take nearly a lifetime to tell in its entirety. Soon, as Mabo becomes increasingly obsessed with the ancient tale on the meaning of his ancestral name, he begins to forgo his studies, daydream, and skip classes, creating a conflict within the Keita household between his traditionally-minded father who encourages Djéliba’s cultural initiation through oral history and his progressive-minded mother who believes that Mabo’s successful future rests on his ability to master a Western education. Interweaving episodes of the thirteenth century poem, The Sundjata Epic into the contemporary, cautionary tale of cultural marginalization in the face of increasing Westernization in Burkina Faso, Keita, The Heritage of the Griot is an evocative, elegantly conceived, and understatedly insightful articulation of the dilemma confronting many African countries at the turn of the century as they struggle to reconcile the influences of their post-colonial past and their pre-colonial history in their (inevitable) social mobilization towards industrialization, technological progress, and modernization. Filmmaker Dani Kouyaté elegantly (and ingeniously) structures the film to reflect the overarching theme on the virtues of an ethnocentric education as a means of preserving cultural heritage in an age of impersonalized globalization (note the film’s reference to Mabo’s traditional studies as a lifelong quest to know the meaning of his name, in essence, his identity). It is this innate search for reconciliation and preservation of indigenous history that is reflected in Mabo’s enlightened quest to know the origin of his name – the need for cultural integration as a means of cultivating and preserving native identity in a national climate of inevitable change, redefinition, and transformation.
Waiting for Valdez, 2002. In an unnamed section of 1970s Johannesburg, a cheerful, inquisitive schoolboy named Sharky stares transfixedly at a billboard poster promoting the screening of the Burt Lancaster film, Valdez is Coming at a local theater. Living under the custody and supervision of his grandmother after his parents were forcibly uprooted and relocated to distant parts of Johannesburg during the implementation of apartheid segregation, young Sharky’s childhood, nevertheless, retains a semblance of normalcy in spite of the political turmoil surrounding his country: an idyllic childhood filled with doting affection, playground misadventures, and curious bewilderment (in particular, from an eccentric relative whose ambition is to pass for a white person and, perhaps implicitly, avoid the mandated segregation). Unable to raise enough money to watch the film first-hand, he instead buys admission into the narrated installments of the story that his friends re-enact nightly around a bonfire. However, when his grandmother unexpectedly falls ill, Sharky ends up missing the end of the film. Filmmaker Dumisani Phakathi presents an understated and evocative quotidian portrait of life in 1970s apartheid-era segregation in Waiting for Valdez. Through the intrinsic correlation with Valdez is Coming – a film that, uncoincidentally, centers on a David and Goliath-styled retribution for a transgression that can never truly be set right – Phakathi presents Sharky’s truncated story as an allegory for the broader national struggle sweeping South Africa as the turmoil and uncertainty of the times is revealed within the context of human history to merely serve as a delayed moment of inevitable reckoning.
The Hero, 2004. Each day, a decorated war veteran and landmine victim named Vitório, having been discharged from the military after the government issued troop demobilization orders at the end of the 30 year civil war, waits in the wings of an overcrowded, physical rehabilitation hospital to see if his petition for a prosthetic leg has finally been granted. Earning the sympathy of a staff physician, Vitório is placed at the head of the waiting list, outfitted with a new prosthesis, and expediently sent away with the qualification that this would be the only gesture that the doctor can offer to help him in his new life. With his newfound mobility (and freedom), Vitório leaves the hospital to return to civilian life after a 20-year forcible conscription, only to find that widespread unemployment, minimal government transition assistance, and his physical disability leave him with few opportunities to rebuild his life in the chaotic social climate of postwar Angola. Resorting to living in the streets, the disillusioned Vitório begins to spend his aimless evenings at a seedy bar where he meets a hostess named Judite who, several years earlier, had lost custody of her son. In another part of the city, a troubled adolescent boy named Manu, already prone to mischief and petty theft, is sent home along with the rest of his classmates after their teacher announces that the teacher’s union has declared a strike and is suspending classes indefinitely. Involuntarily separated from his parents during the war, young Manu lives with his elderly grandmother who still cherishes the (perhaps elusive) hope that his father would one day return to them. In the meantime, Manu’s teacher Joana, the privileged daughter of a Portuguese expatriate, attempts to provide some semblance of stability to Manu’s tumultuous life by visiting his grandmother’s home and encouraging Manu to study during the hiatus. Nevertheless, despite their attempts to instill a sense of discipline in the young boy, Manu continues to commit petty crimes in the hopes of securing enough money to embark on a cross-country trip to search for his missing father. Inevitably, the paths of Vitorio, Judite, and Manu would converge on an actual “other side of the tracks” in the city of Luanda and, in the process, reveal the tragedy of displacement and a lost generation rended by a protracted and devastating war. A thoughtful and compassionate exposition on the process of reconciliation and human resilience, The Hero incisively captures the travails of ordinary people as they struggle to find their place in the amorphous and rapidly transforming socio-economic landscape of a new Angola. From the opening sequence depicting Vitório’s daily hospital ritual, filmmaker Zézé Gamboa introduces the film’s recurring theme of replacement and surrogacy that is subsequently reflected in the characters’ forging of makeshift families as a human imperative towards healing and closure. It is within this deeply humanist message of surrogacy, interdependence, and connection that Gamboa illustrates that true national recovery is achieved, not with the laying down of arms at the end of the conflict, but with the restoration of communality, human dignity, and inner peace.
Story of a Beautiful Country, 2004. During the post-screening Q&A of Story of a Beautiful Country, filmmaker Khalo Matabane stated that his inspiration for his self-described road movie indirectly came from the daily television broadcasts of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, observing that many of the witnesses to the struggle – the human testimonies that not only chronicled national history under apartheid, but also ushered the emergence of a new South Africa – were predominantly given by women. Evoking the familiar African expression, “Truth is a woman”, Matabane then sought to capture the complexity of his native country by interviewing a socially, culturally, intellectually, and economically diverse cross-section of South Africans, mostly women, through a multi-city journey using a familiar, South African mode of transportation: the minibus (that, as the filmmaker subsequently explains, was selected primarily because the vehicle provided a large, panoramic rear window with which to appropriately frame the majestic, native landscape). It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that film recalls the transcendent nomadism, intimacy, and cultural insight of the women passengers (and divorced, middle-class driver) in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten.
Presenting a series of interviews (and performances) from a varied demographic of ordinary citizens, sight-seers, professionals, artists, and students, and interwoven through a radio talk show broadcast that intermittently conducts and engages discussion on opinion polls that attempt to gauge the state of racial relations within the nation, the film serves as an insightful, contemplative, and impassioned open invitation to cross-cultural dialogue on contemporary social issues in South Africa: a militant Boer farmer eager to reclaim the government to a whites-only rule; a young woman who questions the reality of true reconciliation in such a short period of time; an interracial couple who ponders the idea of starting a family; an ethnically multiracial young woman who proudly identifies herself using the socially discouraged, apartheid-era term “colored” to describe her mixed race heritage; a young, Afrikaaner woman who derives energy and inspiration from her newfound access to the nation’s diverse cultures; a silent, middle-aged woman who visits the grave of her son (a victim of post-apartheid racial violence by right-wing extremists); a privileged young woman of native African descent who (not surprisingly) foresees a bright future for the new South Africa even as she acknowledges that Johannesburg still remains largely segregated because of continued economic disparity. In expressing his gravitation in the final editing of the film towards episodes in which the interviewees exhibited moments of silence, incoherence, or prolonged deliberativeness in their responses, Matabane reflects, not only the inherently personal, indefinable process of reconciliation and closure, but also the ephemeral, inarticulable beauty of his beloved homeland.
Born into Struggle, 2004. Part first-hand historical testament on South African anti-apartheid movement and part essay confessional (or perhaps even emotional exorcism) on the filmmaker and activist, Rehad Desai’s absence during the formative years of his own son’s life, Born into Struggle is an intimate and provocative examination of the personal legacy and intangible familial toll caused by the patriarch, Barney Desai’s political activism and consuming obsession towards the struggle for freedom in his beloved homeland. A leading figure in the South African Coloured People’s Congress during the 1960s (and subsequent leader in the Pan-Africanist Congress in the 1990s), Barney Desai would continue his campaign for equal justice even while in exile in England, working as an advocate for minority clients who found themselves running afoul with the police (most notably, during the labor strikes of the 1970s) and documenting the torture and death of West Cape activist and Muslim elder Imam Haron while under police detention in 1969 through the publication of the book, The Killing of the Imam: South African Tyranny Defied by Courage and Faith. However, Barney Desai’s exacting and tireless dedication would have repercussions on the Desai family: a daughter conceals her childhood molestation by a family friend from her parents for fear that her father’s already demoralized emotional state following his exile would sink him further into depression (a subconscious suppression that would lead to an abusive relationship in her adult life); an older son has completely estranged himself from his family and politics, rejecting his father’s academic intellectualism by refraining from obtaining a college education against his father’s advice; a younger son redirects his rage and sense of emotional abandonment through escalating drug addiction and the harassment and brutalization of other ethnic and religious minorities. In contrast to the affirming portrait of familial solidarity and commitment to the national struggle presented in A South African Love Story: Walter and Albertine Sisulu, what emerges in Rehad Desai’s sincere and articulate exposition is a portrait of conflicted emotion, haunted memory, and residual estrangement. In this respect, the Desai children’s sentiment towards their father’s conscious estrangement from his family in the final months of his life during the formation of the transitional post-apartheid government recalls the lingering ambivalence of Miklòs Gimes and his mother, Lucy in the personal documentary, Mutter, in which the patriarch’s image as a national hero becomes equally difficult to reconcile with his own personal failings as a husband and father (Barney Desai’s wife similarly alludes to the possibility of his extramarital affairs during his many trips away from home). In the end, what emerges in Born into Struggle is not only a fascinating tale of one family’s decades long, multinational campaign for equal rights, but more importantly, a provocative and insightful portrait of personal reconciliation and the intangible, human cost of freedom.
Acquarello, 2005 [reprinted]