Rarely does a camera capture an image which reveals a nation’s soul with poignant ferocity.
When Berkeley-based documentary filmmakers Deborah Hoffman and Francis Reid went to South Africa to make a film about the aftermath of apartheid, they saw a video tape of victims of state-sanctioned murder, brutally slain in a ditch.
It’s an unsettling image, certainly, but beyond a gruesome spectacle, that video is resonant of South Africa’s bold attempt to settle its apartheid civil war and forge nobility and humanity from its social and political wreckage.
Hoffman and Reid’s film “Long Night’s Journey into Day,” screening at the UC Theater, which starts today and runs through Sunday, goes for the big issues: history, redemption, nationhood.
Words like these get bandied around easily during a presidential campaign year, to be re-interpreted at a spin doctor’s will, but Hoffman and Reid found a spot on the globe where such ideas are a great deal more than handy rhetoric. In 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed as a joint agreement between the African National Congress and South Africa’s former ruling party.
Upon taking control, the ANC agreed to pardon criminals, but refused to give blanket amnesty to all perpetrators of apartheid crimes. The TRC was created to listen to the victims and criminals, case-by-case, and decide amnesty individually.
Tonight’s screening will feature a performance of South African music by the local choir Vukani Mawethu.
Following the screening, the filmmakers and the Berkeley Dispute Resolution Service, a conflict mediation organization, will facilitate audience discussion groups to explore how the TRC’s conciliation systems can be brought to our town.
The TRC went beyond determining legal resolution of
Those who had suffered crimes – or are the loved ones of those who died from them – were given an unprecedented amount of attention to express their grief and anger. The trials were broadcast on television and radio, and audiences packed the courtrooms.
“It’s like the entire country went to therapy,” said Hoffman. “I don’t think ever before in a truth commission have victims been given center stage as they were in South Africa.”
Hoffman and Reid pieced together their account of South Africa’s experiment in reconciliation from four cases: the parents of Amy Biehl, a white American student killed in a riot by anti-apartheid activists; Eric Taylor, a police officer seeking amnesty for the murder of a group of black activists called the Craddock 4; Robert McBride, who killed four people when he bombed a café to protest apartheid; and the widows of the Guguletu 7, who were the victims of a state-sanctioned massacre.
“The scale of what was going on there was so extraordinary, it was impossible to take care of all the needs, because there was hardly a person in the country who themselves didn’t have a reason to go to the TRC,” said Hoffman. “They had been either victims or perpetrators, but most were victims.”
Talking heads and courtroom proceedings may not be common fare for a visual spectacle, but watching the widows of the Guguletu 7 watch that unsettling video of their dead husbands lying in a ditch, is to witness the raw emotion inherent in this political process.
The trial came to a screeching halt as the women’s wailing and sobs overwhelmed the hearing. Hoffman said it was an unexpected but not a surprising reaction to pressure-cooking the victims alongside the perpetrators in a room with a video of corpses.
“Later that day I bumped into one of the women and she looked really happy,” said Hoffman, “and I said, ‘are you feeling better?’ She said, ‘yes, I am, because now I know so much more.’”
Breakthroughs and redemption are not always forthcoming, however, and “Long Night’s Journey into Day” is not cheerleading for national psychiatric sessions. The film’s motivation takes cues from the South African radio and television broadcasts during the trials: the media function during the TRC as not to pinpoint the absolute Truth, but create a space for argument and plurality so that democracy could begin.
“How do you go about forgiving somebody that has killed your loved one?” said Reid, pondering the enormity of the TRC’s task.
“Is that even possible? Does hearing the truth about what happened, which you may never have known, does that in any way equate justice? Was justice being served by this commission, or not? Those are questions we face in this country, that we face in every place in the world where there have been atrocities.”
Tonight’s screening will bandy around questions like these, as the Berkeley Dispute Resolution Service means to make the documentary more than just a window onto a foreign land. Tami Graham, the case manager at BDRS, said one of the most important tasks of the Berkeley service is to give people the opportunity to be heard, which is the first and most important step toward resolution.
The TRC, likewise, gave currency to the testimonials of South Africa’s common citizens. By speaking of the heretofore-unacknowledged crimes of apartheid, they created a new historical agency that accounts for the suffering of the victims.
That the TRC was investigating murders and the BDRS mostly deals in neighborhood zoning law and tree-trimming squabbles does not lessen the need for truth and a means of reconciliation.
“I think one of the things I most got out of the two and a half years we spent making the film is realizing that history is really just made by ordinary people,” said Hoffman. “You have a choice at every moment to take the high road or the low road, or to be courageous or not, to know the truth or to decide you don’t want to face the truth.”
The film will be shown today, Saturday and Sunday at 5:20 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9:40 p.m. plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday. The UC Theater is at 2036 University Avenue. Call 843-3456.