The price of truth 

“There’s no question, for us as filmmakers,” says Frances Reid, “for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an official body — one actually made up of people from both sides of the struggle — for the new government of South Africa, for everybody, your starting point was: Apartheid was evil. Then you move from there.”

To film Long Night’s Journey Into Day: South Africa’s Search For Truth & Reconciliation, Reid and co-director Deborah Hoffmann traveled to the burgeoning democracy seven times during a two-year period, following the progress of four cases being presented before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a post-apartheid governmental entity established to confer amnesty for politically based crimes.

“What has been unique about what they did in South Africa is that they did not grant blanket amnesty to perpetrators,” Reid explains in a phone interview, speaking from her home base in the San Francisco Bay area. “They didn’t just say, ‘The past is past, and you’re all exonerated.’ They said, ‘If you want to be given amnesty, you must individually take responsibility for what you did, and give full disclosure.’ I think of it as a kind of trading off what we think of as traditional justice for the truth, as opposed to just letting people off scot-free.”

But even as she recorded the ways in which the hearings were affecting South Africans, Reid observed how the central tenets of the TRC run counter to American ideas of justice.

“It’s about as opposite as could be,” she says. “First of all, it’s based on what [TRC Chairperson] Desmond Tutu calls this idea of restorative justice rather than retributive justice, on the assumption that justice can and should be about healing rather than about punishment. Therefore, the idea was that if somebody admits what they have done, that is going to start a healing process not only for them, but also for the victims of their crimes.”

What she saw take root is an idea not often explored in a political forum: that the truth will set you free. This is expressed via tangible actions (convicted criminals being released), and by providing information to the indirect victims of South Africa’s sanctioned brutality, like the mothers of the Guguletu Seven. The government claimed these young men were armed terrorists, and their deaths the result of necessary retaliation. Anti-apartheid activists saw black men systematically gunned down, and suspected a conspiracy.

“Those seven mothers had been trying to find out for years what happened to their sons,” Reid recounts. “There had been three inquests, and all kinds of ways that they had tried to find out, and in every single one of those situations, the security forces who were involved just lied about it. It was only because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that two of those security forces people came forward, applied for amnesty and gave the details of what actually happened. Yes, in some ways it made [the mothers] angry, but also I think it was the beginning of a path of healing for them, so they could then start to let go of it and move on, because there’s something that makes you feel so crazy when you don’t know what has happened.

“There were so many cases,” she continues, “where people’s loved ones or children had disappeared and they had no idea what happened to them. Many times people came before the TRC and said, ‘I just want my child’s bones so I can give them a proper burial.’ Again, because perpetrators were coming forward and saying what happened, giving the details of those crimes, they did a lot of exhumations of bones where activists had been killed and buried, so people were able to have proper memorials.”

The activities of the TRC are purposefully open to scrutiny, and government officials were interested in cooperating with the international media. So Reid and Hoffmann had no difficulty interviewing participants and their families, as well as filming the hearings themselves, which took place in various locales where interested parties were encouraged to attend. Simultaneous translation was provided to bridge the language gap. The emotionally charged public disclosures were regularly broadcast on South African radio (and excerpted by NPR here) and the proceedings have attracted a legion of interested journalists, whose stories sometimes intertwine with those they’re covering — such as Cape Town journalist Tony Weaver, whose revelations about the Guguletu Seven led to his own arrest and trial by the apartheid government.

Reid (Skin Deep, The Faces of AIDS) and Hoffmann (Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter), wanted to explore the process undertaken by the commission, not to pass judgment.

“We were not trying to advocate for what the TRC was doing,” states Reid, “or against it. There certainly is a lot of strong opinion on both sides about the effectiveness of the TRC. [Our film] was really trying to look at the more profound, overarching moral dilemmas South Africa was facing, which are universal.

“One of my lifelong burning issues,” she explains, “is one of reconciliation. How can people reconcile? How do people build bridges? Cross barriers? I felt that what they were attempting to do in South Africa was unique and unprecedented in the world, and I wanted to bear witness to that.”

Co-director Frances Reid screens and discusses her film at the DIA on Thursday, March 8, in a benefit co-sponsored by the Metro Times. The film repeats Monday, March 12. See Big Screen for details.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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