A Letter to Nelson Mandela: IDFA Review

Gebrueder Beetz
"A Letter to Nelson Mandela"
Intriguingly ambivalent assessment of a great man's legacy has a prematurely obituary air.

South African director Khalo Matabane's documentary, co-produced with Germany, won a Special Jury Award at the Dutch documentary showcase.

Note: Shortly after this review was published, South African President Jacob Zuma announced that Nelson Mandela has passed away at the age of 95.

World-premiering at a time when its recipient is fighting for his life at his Johannesburg home, Khalo Matabane's essayistic A Letter to Nelson Mandela, is nothing if not topical -- to a degree that may strike some viewers as opportunistic, possibly even tasteless. But regardless of the nonagenarian icon's health-status over the coming months, plenty of festivals and small-screen outlets will want to show this provocative non-fiction counterpart to Justin Chadwick's fresh-in-cinemas biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

As it's explicitly presented as an epistolary dispatch from one man to another, it makes sense that it should be "delivered" while the former South African president is still around to theoretically receive it. But the intended audience for this particular missive is of course much wider than one individual, as Matabane contributes to what will at some point in the near future become a worldwide reappraisal of "everybody's favorite uncle." Over three sections ("Freedom," "Reconciliation" and "Forgiveness") bookended by a prologue and epilogue, Matabane relates his shifting subjective responses to a man who for so many is more benevolent demigod than politician or national figurehead.

He traces the development of his long-distance "relationship" with Mandela, from a childhood during the apartheid era when images of the incarcerated rebel leader were officially banned by South Africa's government. Having been brought up to revere and idolize Mandela, Matabane increasingly experiences "anger and disillusionment" after his hero's release and speedy ascent to the presidency. The South Africa which Matabane now surveys is a violent, unequal place where many are "living in the most degrading and appalling conditions, (believing) that they are free."

Best known for 2005's feature Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, Matabane interpolates his personal reflections with comments from numerous interviewees who shed light on Mandela's multifaceted legacy. Eminences such as Colin Powell, Wole Soyinka, Henry Kissinger and the Dalai Lama all chip in, sometimes in tangentially discursive fashion, and it's Argentine/Chilean dramatist Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden) who provides the most germane, illuminating and nuanced insights.

Each of these talking heads are presented in isolation, speaking to a silent, unseen interviewer, and there's no sense of anything resembling dialogue, debate or proper exchange of opinions. In addition, Matabane and his editor Catherine Meyburgh might profitably have scaled down this talking-heads element, instead devoting more time to the last-reel visit to Mandela's Qunu homeland, which currently feels pointlessly fleeting.

Such choices result in an impression that Matabane, even by the end of a film shown at IDFA under the title Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me hasn't come to terms with his feelings toward a man he refers to as "Tata" (father). Nor can he quite achieve the tricky feat of paralleling his own progression through the decades with that of his turbulent homeland ("History weighs heavy on my shoulders," he sighs) or quite articulate the specific nature of his complaint ("Perhaps we'll never understand you … the truth about you lies in your contradictions," he muses).

And when in the closing moments we finally get to hear from ordinary South Africans -- a trio of young people aged between 19 and 21 -- their hard-won optimism provides an intriguing counterbalance to a film whose gloominess sometimes verges on the apocalyptic.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Production: Born Free Media, Gebrueder Beetz
Director-screenwriter: Khalo Matabane
Producer: Carolyn Carew
Directors of photography: Giulio Biccari, Mike Downie, Nicolaas Hofmeyr
Editor: Catherine Meyburgh
Music: Neo Muyanga
Sales: Gebrueder Beetz, Berlin

Not rated, 85 minutes