'The State Against Mandela and the Others': Film Review | Cannes 2018
Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte use animated graphics and newly available audio recordings to reconstruct a dramatic apartheid-era court case.
An historic defeat in the fight against South Africa's apartheid regime, the Rivonia trial of 1963-64 ended with Nelson Mandela and seven co-accused serving life sentences behind bars for crimes of sabotage. The defendants turned the high-stakes trial into a powerful piece of political theater, even privately agreeing that they would not appeal against the death penalty if they were found guilty on more serious treason charges. They lost an important battle but, in the longer span of history, they later won the war.
French documentary makers Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte have found an elegant way to reconstruct the Rivonia trial with The State Against Mandela and the Others, an official noncompeting Cannes premiere that marks the centenary year of Mandela's birth. Drawing on a treasure trove of previously inaccessible audio recordings, the directing duo bring the archive clips alive using heavily stylized hand-drawn visuals by the Dutch graphic artist Oerd van Cuijlenborg, whose kinetic monochrome animations morph into pure abstraction in places. Very stylish.
The film also includes vintage newsreel footage and new firsthand interviews with key players from the Rivonia trial, including Winnie Mandela and several surviving defendants, all now in their 80s and 90s. The result is an artful documentary that contains few new revelations, but which adds welcome shading and human detail to a much-told story. Despite its title, The State Against Nelson Mandela and the Others also nudges the spotlight away from the former ANC president and gives some of his less feted comrades their due. Inspirational subject matter and decorous visuals should add up to solid buyer interest in Cannes, especially from high-end TV outlets.
The State Against Mandela and the Others was partly made possible by new technology, which finally allowed the 256 hours of fragile analogue recordings from the trial to be digitally transferred without degrading the antique originals. Champeaux and Porte use extensive extracts from this ancient audio record, including Mandela's stirring and rightly famous set-piece speech about being prepared to die for the noble ideals of racial equality.
But there are more telling, testy exchanges here, too, between judge, prosecution team and defendants. Among the co-accused, the late Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada both give moving and witty testimony. Kathrada and former girlfriend Sylvia Neame both appear in contemporary interview footage, relating ruefully how the trial wrecked their dreams of starting a family.
Every great drama needs a villain, and in this case that role is enthusiastically embraced by South Africa's state prosecutor Percy Yutar, whose tone during the trial is relentlessly hostile and haughty. Oerd's animation depicts Yutar as a patrician, domineering figure who towers menacingly over the shrunken defendants.
Yutar died in 2002, but his son David appears in the film, defending his father's character and arguing that his appointment as South Africa's first Jewish attorney general was a cynical bid to muddy the waters of official racist policy. Mandela, to his eternal credit, would later invite Yutar to lunch following his release from jail three decades later. Revenge is a dish best served kosher.
The State Against Mandela and the Others adds little essential to the vast library of documentaries about Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle. All the same, this is a heartfelt, humane and visually inventive tribute to a fading generation of giants whose principled sacrifices ended up changing history. Several interviewees, including Kathrada and Winnie Mandela, died before the film was completed. Which only adds extra poignancy to the closing scene, a face-to-face reunion of Rivonia trial survivors, a kind of Buena Vista Socialism Club replaying their greatest hits one last time before the final curtain falls.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Production companies: UFO Production, Rouge International
Cast: Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, George Bizos, Joel Joffe, Winnie Mandela, Max Sisulu, Sylvia Neame, Toni Strasburg, David Yutar
Directors-screenwriters: Nicolas Champeaux, Gilles Porte
Animations: Oerd van Cuijlenborg
Cinematographer: Gilles Porte
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
Producers: William Jehannin, Julie Gayet, Nadia Turincev, Antoun Sehnaoui, Raphaelle Delauche
Music: Aurelien Chouzenoux
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