The life of iconic activist and South African president Nelson Mandela is the subject of multiple features, including “Invictus,” “Mandela,” and Idris Elba’s criminally underrated turn in Justin Chadwick’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” However, when these narratives detailed the trial that convicted him of treason, the nine other defendants hardly rated a footnote. A nonfiction feature, “The State Against Mandela and the Others,” bridges that gap.
While Mandela led South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement here his lesser-known co-defendants take center stage. Directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte’s documentary is the most in-depth examination of the Mandela’s trial, rolling back the veil of secrecy to reveal the day-to-day courtroom testimony.
Based on 280 hours of sound archives from Mandela’s trial with nine other men between 1963 and 1964, “The State Against Mandela” utilizes fresh techniques and technology to chronicle everything from the arrest to the indictment and eventual sentencing. However, audiences may find the filmmakers’ approach more compelling than the film itself.
“The State Against Mandela” intertwines animation and interviews with surviving defendants and South African activists, creating re-enactments that utilize live audio recorded at trial. It’s a clever and surprisingly effective tactic, with charcoal sketches that enhance the storytelling to recount events that took place outside of the courtroom.
The filmmakers utilize the drawings to execute an abstract narrative; this is not a cartoon of a courtroom procedural. All of the men on trial faced possible execution, and had to face insurmountable evidence submitted against them. The contradictions in testimony are illustrated through sketches, but are never explicitly confirmed, leaving the transcript to speak for itself
The film lands squarely on the side of the eight men on trial, but the film remains murky in its depiction of Mandela. Here he’s seen as the ambitious leader that fascinated the western world, but who was not yet the fully formed leader we’ve previously seen on screen.
Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” remains arguably the high-water mark for documentary animation, but Porte and Champeux are quite dexterous with the medium. Never intrusive, they morph from first-person recounting to details in the trial audio recordings with fluidity. Since Mandela is not the primary narrative, the film leaves more room for the women of the movement. In some of the last interviews with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, we learned about the work done outside of the trial and how vital their participation was for the movement.
Ultimately, however, “The State Against Mandela” may be too clever by half. The film leans too deeply into the trial’s salacious aspects and the tumultuous relationships between the various men. The film’s dismissive title — which reflects the government’s actual case name — also reflects the filmmakers’ opinions of Mandela’s co-defendants. Champeaux and Porte are refreshingly straightforward with the dialogue in their script, although they sometimes become infatuated with their own cleverness; the film could easily lose 20 minutes and be stronger for it.
“The State Against Mandela” premiered out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.