Lingering grief

A tragic documentary examines the wounds of apartheid.

“My heart was too sore ... I was weeping for my child,” a South African mother explains to the filmmakers behind the camera of Long Night’s Journey into Day. Later, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) committee member Pumla Gobododo-Madikizela prepares this mother and the other mothers of the Guguletu Seven for meeting the black police officer, Thapelo Mbelo, who took part in killing their sons.

“It’s not easy when you look that person in the eye. It changes totally,” she explains. “It won’t bring our children back,” an elder mother says instructing the others. “We must simply prepare ourselves to ask what we need to know, that’s all.” Truth is essential for reconciliation and with that truth comes a catharsis that turns the halls the TRC occupies into South African theaters of classic Greek tragedy.

After the dismantling of apartheid, the TRC was formed in South Africa to consider amnesty for crimes committed under its rule “on a case-by-case basis in exchange for the truth.” The truth may literally set you free. Directors Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman tell the stories of the Guguletu Seven and three other cases, the murders of Amy Biehl and the Craddock Four and the amnesty application of Robert McBride, weaving texts, cinematic postcards, archival stills and footage, and local music into a documentary that moved me to tears.

At one session, the TRC presents police video of the aftermath of the Guguletu Seven killings. The eyes of some of the young men are still open and shining, their blood still wet in rivulets and pools on the street. Cynthia Ngewu watches as the police tug the body of her son, Christopher Piet, from the road with a rope as they would the carcass of a dog.

“They dragged him through the dirt with that rope,” she tragically laments like a modern Antigone to Mbelo, one of those responsible for his death. But she and many other mothers forgive, just as Linda Biehl, Amy Biehl’s mother, forgives, embracing the mother of her daughter’s killer. Tragedy turns to redemption.

See this week's Reckless Eyeballing for an exlusive interview with co-director Frances Reid.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit): Thursday at 7 p.m., introduced by producer-director Frances Reid (benefit for “Detroit Summer, Shared Interest,” a program encouraging small-business loans to South Africa. Tickets $20 and $50, call 313-832-2904), with a prior reception at 6 p.m.; and the regular DFT screening on Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].