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Dear Mandela: Putting a Documentary to Work

Posted on February 6, 2013 by WITNESS

Impact does not happen in a straight line: you make the film, show it, and things change. One of the joys of self-distributing the documentary Dear Mandela has been watching it feather out into the world, doing surprising things in unexpected places. 

By Dara Kell.

Dear Mandela follows young people resisting mass eviction from their homes in the shantytowns of Durban. They are members of South Africa’s largest social movement of the poor, Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is Zulu for “Residents of the Shacks.” We filmed for four years as they took the government to the highest court in the country, won their case and got the dangerously regressive ‘Slums Act‘ scrapped from the books. They saved thousands from eviction, and like so many South Africans in recent times, they have paid a heavy price for their defiance.  

‘Who is this film for?’ Christopher Nizza, my husband and co-director, and I grappled with this question. I wanted it to work for everyone, to be a moving and inspiring story for activists, couch potatoes, and cinephiles. It needed to be clear and compelling both for those in South Africa, as well as audiences abroad who might not know the situation intimately.

It had to work first and foremost, however, for the people in the film. Only an accurate an honest portrayal of their lives would make the film both ethical and powerful. Only then could others living in similar situations, perhaps in Brazilian favelas or Mumbai slums, see themselves reflected in the film.

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We showed rough cuts to Abahlali members throughout production, took careful note of their questions and concerns, and addressed them. S’bu Zikode, president of the movement, said of the finished film,

“Dear Mandela is actually capturing the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. I think it really does send a strong message to the people that are oppressed, to the people that are marginalized…that are seeing themselves as not part of our world. …that despite poverty, as long as they see themselves as human beings that can think, then something can be done.”

Telling the story honestly and accurately was our most important responsibility. Our goal, though, was for the courage, agency and unity of the young people in South Africa to inspire the one billion people living in shantytowns worldwide.

First stop: Haiti. We joined with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) to organize a week-long screening tour in the tent camps of Port-au-Prince, where one in five earthquake survivors face eviction from their flimsy homes. CCR planned the screening with help from tent camp leaders, movement lawyers, women’s movement leaders, activists, and journalists. We traveled each day from camp to camp, armed with our new Creole version of Dear Mandela, a projector, a generator and a white sheet (or in some cases, a white USAID tarp). We screened the film with hundreds of earthquake survivors whose post-screening questions focused on leadership, building social movements, and how to use the law to stop evictions.

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The film only does part of the work. Connecting such different populations requires a personal touch, even if they share an experience like forced evictions.

The importance of having two members of Abahlali baseMjondolo with us for the Q&As cannot be overstated. Mnikelo Ndabankulu (one of the film’s central protagonists) and Zodwa Nsibande (also a founding member of Abahlali) are both 28 years old and have been leaders in the movement since its inception in 2005. They answered questions with aplomb and sensitivity. 

After many of the screenings, the first question was, ‘How do you stop your leaders from getting bribed?’ The answer, from Mnikelo and Zodwa was, “By having many leaders”. If they corrupt one leader, there are enough others to continue the movement. They can’t corrupt us all. We need many Martin Luther King Juniors, many Mandelas.

That is the message that we will be taking to India, Brazil, Nigeria and beyond in 2013. In Brazil, we plan to work in Fortaleza, where 22 communities (20,000) people are facing imminent displacement due to a light rail line for the 2014 World Cup. In India, we plan to work with a street theatre troupe to take the Hindi version of Dear Mandela and accompanying theatre pieces to those facing eviction.

With ever-expanding networks of creative souls by our side – activists, lawyers, academics and fellow filmmakers – I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

 

Dear Mandela is now streaming for a limited time in the United States. Dear Mandela is airing on PBS stations as part of the AfroPoP series in New York (WNET), Los Angeles (KLCS) and Chicago (WYCC). For broadcast times, visit their website and  click “where to watch.” Watch, and join the filmmakers for a virtual screening and live chat on the 27th February 2013.

Dara Kell is a South African documentary director and editor. As an editor, she has worked on a number of high-profile films and television shows, including Academy Award nominee Jesus Camp and Emmy Award winner Diamond at the Rock. She has also edited short films for Human Rights Watch and the MacArthur Foundation. For Dear Mandela, she was selected as a fellow at the Sundance Institute Documentary Composers Lab and the IFP Documentary Lab. 

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