With Nelson Mandela apparently at death’s door and the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” revving up for Oscar season with a recent White House screening, widespread veneration for South Africa’s iconic leader has arguably never been higher. The mythology surrounding Mandela has grown so sacrosanct that the measured approach to his failings in Khalo Matabane’s diary-like documentary “A Letter to Nelson Mandela” has almost radical connotations. However, far from issuing a subversive missive, Matabane manages a thoughtful analysis of Mandela’s monolithic legacy through the prism of growing up in its shadow as a child of the eighties. Expertly assembled with a mixture of authoritative talking heads and the filmmaker’s introspective first-person narration, “A Letter to Nelson Mandela” cannily deconstructs the messianic fervor surrounding its subject — and, by extension, others like him.
Raised, like so many South Africans of his generation, to revere Mandela as the panacea to the ills of apartheid, Matabane uses his eponymous open letter to frame a contrast between the hysteria’s surrounding Mandela’s celebrity and the reality of his accomplishments. Many of the fellow South Africans that Matabane interviews complain about the heavenly qualities ascribed to Mandela as the curtain fell on apartheid. “The symbol of Mandela became more powerful than the man,” says one, while another suggests that the fanaticism surrounding Mandela’s activism made him “like a Moses.”
These assertions are juxtaposed with an impressive lineup of establishment figures ranging from Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger to the president of Germany. Using their voices to explore the nature of Mandela’s diplomacy, Matabane both shows reverence for the erstwhile president’s influence on other world leaders while demystifying his presumed greatness.
Though Matabane doesn’t force his own experience into the center of these conversations, through his voiceover, he cast himself as the story’s other main character, foregrounding his emerging understanding of Mandela over the years. A teenager when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Matabane recalls noticing Mandela’s unglamorous appearance on television (“You looked normal, like my grandfather”). It’s a sly way into poking holes in perceptions of South Africa’s immediate transformation into peacetime: Matabane touches on the 1993 assassination of African National Congress member Chris Hani by apartheid loyalists and the nation’s lingering poverty as evidence that the picture never really got that rosy.
Matabane assails the transformation of Mandela’s old prison cell into a public shrine for obscuring the events that unfolded during the same time in the outside world, but once again, he doesn’t do all the legwork himself: Selina Williams, an activist whose sister died in an apartheid-related bombing during protest activities, sets the record straight: “South Africa was created by its people,” she says. “We can’t give all the glory to one person.” War photographer Greg Marinovich echoes that concern by calling Mandela “a shorthand solution to all the country’s problems.” Although it clocks in at just over 80 minutes, Matabane’s project tucks these concise assertions into each of its neatly formulated chapters, leaving no doubt that many others share his frustrations.
However, with its reflective tone, “A Letter to Nelson Mandela” is never entirely dismissive of Mandela’s impact. Digging into his message of reconstitution through a controversial process of national forgiveness, Matabane includes multiple stories featuring victims of apartheid-era oppression facing their supposedly remorseful captors years later. The most tantalizing among them is Albie Sachs, who lost an arm in a car bombing, and recounts his story of meeting the bomber after the war with cathartic results. Instead of dismissing this approach, Matabane convincingly argues that the unifying spirit simply underserved the demand for justice.
“A Letter From Nelson Mandela” gets somewhat unruly when Matabane expands its scope to draw parallels between apartheid, the Salvador Allende rulership in Chile and the war in Iraq. However, the personal dimension of the project allows these asides to churn along without interrupting the flow. Matabane’s collection of sights and sounds allow for a complete immersion into the iconography of the main period under discussion. Combining pro-Mandela chants, folk songs featuring fawning lyrics, and snippets of news reports surrounding Mandela’s current withering state to root the project in the present, Matabane reaches an apt conclusion: “Perhaps you are a creation of my own imagination.” By the time Matabane gets that far, he’s earned the ability to speak for a generation.
While some of the repeated cutaways of the filmmaker’s sullen reflection in the window of a South African train overemphasize his confused state, that same ingredient excuses the movie from a purely objective overview. Matabane only touches on Mandela’s positive achievements through archival materials, but that point of view has been so heavily established (and strengthened further with each passing year) that its marginal role here imbues “A Letter From Nelson Mandela” with a fresh angle that feels not only provocative but essential.
“The narrative around building a new country was not interrogated enough,” Matabane asserts. “It is an unfinished story.” With “A Letter to Nelson Mandela,” the director takes a productive step towards the possibility of completing it.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A well-received and obviously provocative entry at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, “A Letter to Nelson Mandela” should enjoy plenty of festival play and has a decent shot at finding limited distribution with a company willing to embrace its unconventional slant.