'Winnie': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Winnie- Still 1 - H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance
Nothing new to see here.

French director Pascale Lamche ('Accused #1: Nelson Mandela') returns to South Africa for this portrait of Winnie Mandela that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

If Nelson Mandela was often perceived and portrayed as a saint even during his lifetime, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was married for 38 years to the man who would become South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president, was most certainly not. Accusations, trials and investigative commissions have been a part of her life for decades, and Pascale Lamche’s new feature documentary, simply titled Winnie, has the thankless task of sorting through decades of muckraking and controversy, hoping to uncover the complexities and truth of the real person behind the woman once referred to as “the mother of a nation.”

Whether the doc succeeds in doing that depends not only on Lamche’s arguments and relative skills but also on the viewer, who needs to decide whether the fact the director was given access to Ms. Mandela four times over the course of two years might have had an impact on what (aspects of which) stories got told and how (for example, there is no mention of her criminal convictions in the 2000s). That said, broadcasters will likely line up because of the value of the Mandela name. The film premiered as part of Sundance’s world documentary strand.

Lamche, who earlier made the 2004 documentary Accused #1: Nelson Mandela for the BBC, tells Winnie’s story in classic, chronological fashion, starting with her marriage to Nelson in 1958 and her subsequent years of activism with the ANC during his years of imprisonment (1963-1990). Her early upbringing and background is touched upon only very hastily — when Mandela confesses that “this is probably what made Winnie,” the film makes no attempt to either analyze what she has said or let it sink in — before getting to the 1960s. During this time, it was impossible for her incarcerated husband to do anything, much less anything controversial, while Winnie took it upon herself to further the cause of the ANC in his absence.

This naturally made her the target of government and secret-service forces, though to what extent exactly they tried to silence and smear her and to what extent her own decisions might have been reckless or otherwise unwise is almost impossible to tell from the material gathered here. For example, Niël Barnard, a former head of the South Africa’s National Intelligence Service — and one of the driving institutional forces behind the relatively peaceful transition to a post-Apartheid South Africa, though that’s never made clear — is one of the talking heads and he categorically states that the “notion that we tried to divide and rule is historically incorrect,” though he earlier did admit that Nelson Mandela was sent to live in a monitored house that was bugged and that “we struggled with what to do with Winnie, the mother of the nation” (she refused to be housed there with her husband in an “artificial reality” since he was still technically a prisoner).

Paradoxes such as these aren’t much explored by Lamche, who mostly seems to have simply stitched together soundbites from her interviews chronologically without asking any kind of follow-up questions whenever her subjects said something potentially new or interesting. Many of the controversies, if covered at all, are thus addressed in a superficial manner and there’s no real attempt to suggest how different versions of the truth were out there and at least some of them had to be mutually exclusive.

Ms. Mandela herself doesn’t provide much in terms of a new understanding of her own life and actions that she hasn’t already provided earlier and elsewhere. Instead, the film’s most articulate insights come from Anne Marie Bezdrob, a biographer whose Winnie Mandela: A Life was the basis for the maligned 2011 feature film, also called Winnie, starring Jennifer Hudson. But since she’s written so extensively about the subject, there’s a sense that her insights are just repetitions or reformulations of her own work rather than anything coaxed out of her by Lamche in the context of her documentary research.

To enliven the interviews, editor Giles Gardner uses abundant archive footage and photos as well as some new material footage shot in South Africa. Together with the film’s occasionally jazzy music choices, it lends this possibly tragic tale something oddly warm and uplifting. One editing choice causes some confusion and weakens some of the arguments that are barely there to begin with: After having been identified onscreen when they appear as talking heads, some of the interviewees appear again but only in audio form combined with generic archival footage. Here, the speakers are not identified for a second time, making it hard to be sure who is talking at times.

Production companies: Pumpernickel Films, Submarine, Big World Cinema, IV Films
Writer-director: Pascale Lamche
Producer: Christoph Jörg
Executive producer: Tanaz Eshaghian  
Directors of photography: Olivier Raffet, Felix Meyburgh, Nic Hofmyer, Heikki Färm
Editor: Giles Gardner
Music: Daniel Hamburger
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Sales: Cinephil

98 minutes