South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane writes several imaginary letters to Nelson Mandela in which he questions the meaning of freedom, reconciliation and forgiveness in present day South Africa. In his film, Matabane speaks to prominent South African scholars and activists such as Albie Sachs, Pumla Gqola and Zubeida Jaffer but also to world leaders and politicians such as Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. He switches between interviews, personal narratives and historical images and portraits of Mandela.
Matabane interrogates the meaning of the icon that Mandela became over the years; from freedom fighter to the teddy bear celebrity that everyone wanted to meet. Mandela became the symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness. But was does it actually mean to be free and to reconcile in South Africa today? Former perpetrators were able to walk free whilst others remain imprisoned by inequality and poverty. Matabane speaks to Charity Kondile, a mother whose son was brutally murdered by the South African police during Apartheid. She wanted the perpetrators to stand trial but that never happened. Is forgiveness even possible when it is not a choice? At least for Charity Kondile this does not seem the case.
Filmmaker Khalo Matabane
Matabana contrasts the myth around Mandela with present day realities in South Africa. Some of the interviewees somewhat deconstruct the myth around Mandela by talking about the many other people who have contributed to the struggle and by placing critical notes to the constructed image of Mandela. Others speak about his character, that he could be cold and calculating as well. Although we hear from these critical voices, room could have been made for more. It would have been more interesting to have longer a longer interview with Zubeida Jaffer, for instance, than with Colin Powell. Also, we don’t see much of the daily realities of many South Africans reflected in the film.
A film about Khalo Matabane and his documentary
Matabane himself was a teenager when Mandela was released from prison and recalls how he saw Mandela when growing up. His own narrative does not become the most important part of the film but softly guides the viewer in various directions. Whereas the personal narrative is somehow contained, the bigger questions make enormous leaps. From South Africa to the war in Iraq to the Salvador Allende rulership in Chile. Although his intent is clear - to not only look at Mandela’s influence outside of South Africa but also to see questions of freedom in a broader perspective - it’s too far a stretch to make a huge impact. [That said, it did win the Special Jury Award last month at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).]
A letter to Mandela comes at a time of mourning but offers thought and room for more critical reflection upon the legacy of Mandela.