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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Abby Ginzberg – ‘Soft Vengeance’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Abby Ginzberg - 'Soft Vengeance'

Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg has been producing and directing award-winning
documentary films for nearly three decades. Her most recent feature-length documentary, Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa,
was an official selection at IFP in 2013 and premiered at Full Frame in
2014 and is currently traveling internationally throughout the festival
circuit. It won the People’s Choice Award from the Vancouver South African Film
Festival and the Audience Award for Best International Documentary from
the Encounters Film Festival in South Africa. (

Soft Vengeance
will play at Doc NYC on November 16.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

AG: Soft Vengeance, a film about Albie Sachs — a lawyer, writer,
and freedom fighter — is set against the dramatic events leading to the
overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Imprisoned in solitary confinement and forced
into a 24-year exile by the apartheid regime, Albie had his right arm blown off by a car bomb placed by South African security forces. While recovering, he received a note: “Don’t worry, comrade
Albie, we will avenge you.”

“What kind of country would it be,” he said, “if it was filled
with people who were blind and without arms? But if we achieve democracy and
freedom, that will be my soft vengeance.” The first phase of his “soft vengeance” started with his becoming one of the principal architects of South Africa’s new constitution. It went on to include meeting with Henri, the military
intelligence agent who had organized the placing of the bomb, and ended with his
15 years on the Constitutional Court, where Albie and the other judges helped
secure the fundamental human rights for which they had been fighting.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

have known Albie since 1974, when we met as he was traveling in the US
seeking support for the anti-apartheid movement. He became a personal
link to that movement for me as I became involved in the divestment
campaign and other anti-apartheid activities. However, the idea for the
film did not occur to me until I finally went to South Africa in 2009
and met with Albie. At that point, a light bulb went off, and I was able
to envision the film using Albie’s journey as a way of telling a story
about some of the unsung participants of the anti-apartheid movement.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AG: Raising
the money and then making sure that the balance between Albie’s story
and that of the larger movement of which he was a part was in proper
balance. The film would never work in South Africa if it made Albie out
to be some kind of hero or failed to contextualize him as part of the
overall struggle against apartheid.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

want people to reconsider how they think about revenge and
retribution — on a personal as well as a societal level. Albie has
always had a deep faith in the principles of human rights, justice, and
equality, and it guided his response to being the victim of a car bomb
attack — and to meeting the person responsible for his injuries.

response, which was not about forgiveness but about how do people from
opposite sides of the struggle figure out how to live together as a new
country is created, is a model for many countries emerging from decades
of war, strife, and violence. I want people to think about how they
might have reacted had they been in Albie’s shoes in solitary
confinement, in exile, and after he was bombed.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

AG: The
key quality we all need to have at this time is perseverance. It is
getting harder and harder to find the funding for documentaries, but if
you believe you have a good idea for a film, keep at it and eventually
you will find a way to get it made. There are lots of fabulous women
directing documentaries these days, so if you have questions or need
help, reach out to another woman director and try to get the advice you

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

AG: That
there is something exciting about every aspect of filmmaking. When
people see the finished product, they do not see the long months or even
years of fundraising drudgery and rejections. The fact is that much of
our time as filmmakers is spent raising money, rather than actually
making the films.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? 

AG: The
film’s initial funding came from people who knew something about
Albie’s story and were willing to help me get to South Africa to do the
first shoot. It took about a year to raise the initial $60,000, which
underwrote a two-week shoot and gave us enough material to begin to put
together a trailer and sizzle reel. All the initial funding went into
the costs of production and then editing the trailer, and I was not paid
during this period.

Then the Ford Foundation heard about the film
because a vice president of the Foundation was at a lunch in Kenya and
happened to be sitting next to Albie, who mentioned that an American
woman was making a film about him. That led to a meeting at Ford, where
they agreed to pay the costs of finishing the film if I could commit to
getting it done within the next 12 months. Ford was celebrating 20 years
of work in South Africa in February 2014, and my film was featured at
their opening event in Johannesburg.

Ford’s support made all the
difference, because it enabled me and my team to work full time on the
film and not be continually distracted by the fundraising. Had Ford not come in when they did, it is likely it would have taken several more years to complete the film.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AG: Harlan County
by Barbara Kopple has long been one of my favorite movies, and I am a fan of her other work as well, particularly The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing. These
films take you into a world you might not otherwise have access to and introduce you to characters who stay with you and to stories of
resistance that are inspiring. In a nutshell, that is what I hope my films do as well, and Kopple was one of my early influences as a documentary filmmaker.

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