The State Against Mandela And The Others

2018 marks the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela.
He seized centre stage during a historic trial in 1963 and 1964.
But there were eight others who, like him, faced the death sen- tence. They too were subjected to pitiless cross-examinations. To a man they stood rm and turned the tables on the state : South Africa’s Apartheid regime was in the dock.
Recently recovered sound archives of those hearings transport us back into the thick of the courtroom battles.


The State Against Mandela And The Others is based on the sound archives from the trial of Nelson Mandela and nine other men between 1963 and 1964. These sound archives are a treasure trove but why were they hidden away for such a long time ?

Nicolas Champeaux : The trial was recorded on an analogue audio recording system called dictabelts. This was a very supple vinyl that was rolled around a cylinder and was read with a stylus rather like a record player. The British Library tried to digitalise them in 2000. The library selected the speech of Mandela but the result wasn’t very satisfying.
Gilles Porte : So after that the recordings went back to gathering dust in South Africa until some French people came along with a recent invention called the Archéophone. This is a machine which allows dictabelts to be digitalised without ruining them.
N.C. And that’s essentially how an agreement developed between France and South Africa.

But even before the South African government decided to digitalise the recordings in July 2016, you’d already listened to them, hadn’t you Nicolas ?

N.C. That’s right. Henri Chamoux, the inventor of the “Archéophone” had listened to the entire 256 hours of the trial into order to digitalise them. Just to give you an idea, that’s a bit like reading all of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Chamoux was immediately struck by the courage of some of Mandela’s co-accused especially Ahmed Kathrada. I’d interviewed Kathrada several times while I was working as the permanent special correspondent for Radio France Internationale in Johannesburg. Chamoux came across my interviews with Kathrada on the internet and got in touch with me.
I didn’t exactly need a second invitation. I listened to two 30 minute extracts and straight away I knew that this was a gold mine. I was stunned by what I was hearing. It wasn’t only the sound quality but the sheer emotion that was coming through. One of the accused, with the death sentence hanging over him, was going toe to toe with the prosecutor. He wasn’t looking for any sort of clemency or a more lenient sentence. Nothing of the sort. He wanted to put apartheid on trial even if that made things worse for himself. I wanted these voices to be heard so that everyone could listen to their stories. I thought who takes this kind of risk nowadays in the name of a cause ? I instantly decided to make a film about it.

But you’d never directed a film, had you ?

N.C. And that’s why I contacted a friend of mine, William Jéhannin, who eventually became our producer. He had just finished distributing Jean-Gabriel Périot’s film Une jeunesse allemande which was based on archive material. Once William took an interest in the project, he introduced me to Gilles Porte because I wanted to team up with an experienced director.

So, Gilles, what drew you to the project ?

G.P. To be frank, when I met Nicolas in November 2016, I didn’t know anything about the Rivonia trial and that others had been sentenced to life in prison along with Nelson Mandela. The first question I asked Nicolas was : ‘Are there any survivors?’ ‘Three,’ he replied and promptly called each one of them up. I’d forgotten that there wasn’t a time difference between South Africa and France ! When he’d finished talking to the last of them, he told me that two defence lawyers were still alive including Nelson Mandela’s lawyer. All these men were between 87 and 93. I said to Nicolas: ‘We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to get them now.’

But did you have any financial backers at that point ?

G.P. No. We had nothing. I’d already done some documentaries on the hoof - so to speak - so I wasn’t freaked out. And besides it was a chance to get to know Nicolas better. It’s crucial in this type of project to know the other person a bit... We might not have been able to get along.
N.C. William Jéhannin and his company backed us. They put up the money for the first trip to South Africa.
G.P. For the interviews, I put up the same back drop that I’d used when I was filming children who didn’t know how to read or write for the short films in Portraits/Autoportraits. This grey cloth allowed the children’s gestures to be highlighted. The cloth was going to help us gather up the words and expressions of some very extraordinary old men.
N.C. As they sit in front of this cloth, wearing headphones, the survivors hear their confrontations with the prosecutor from 57 years ago for the first time in their life.
G.P. Thanks to this technique, the men are taken right back.That helped them to speak more freely and more intimately. They often said some stunning things. You’ve got to remember these aren’t men who usually speak about themselves. They had made the choice to fade into the background and they were always asked about Nelson Mandela. Basically, for the first time, they were being given the chance to tell their own personal stories. And it was easier for them because Nicolas knew their stories.

How did the first trip go ?

N.C. For most people who travel there South Africa is a tricky issue. I realised quite quickly that Gilles was one of those people who is sensitive to the history of the country.
G.P. I’ve liked my trips to South Africa and going there with Nicolas as a colleague was brilliant. I’d do it all again tomorrow if I could. Our two trips there to film went really well even though there seemed to be loads of problems before we left.

Did you both instantly know what kind of film you wanted ?

G.P. There’s no film footage of this trial but when I met Nicolas, he showed me sketches that the wife of one of the accused had done during the hearings. The idea of 2D animation came quickly. The trial couldn’t be filmed but it could be an animation! I introduced Nicolas to Oerd, a graphic designer with whom I’ve collaborated and whose work I admire.
N.C. Oerd’s work has always had sound as an important element and we needed someone who could handle that side of things. The commission was quite complex. Oerd had to design something extraordinary on the screen without it eclipsing the sound. Oerd’s work has humour and some amusing artistic ideas. It was important to make the most of the lighter moments in the film. It needed some breathing space. In short, Oerd ticked all the boxes and added his idiosyncrasies. South African politics - which separated people on the basis of their skin colour - lends itself to the design. Black, white and a line between them. There wasn’t a doubt that Oerd would come up with something wonderful.
G.P. Oerd’s animations had to make sure they didn’t detract from listening to what was going on. He got that straight away. Oerd got the balance exactly right.
N.C. I knew that Oerd was going to get on well with the composer Aurélien Chouzenoux. Aurélien’s a friend from childhood who works in the performing arts. It seemed to me to be a better t for our project than an out and out film music composer. Oerd and Aurélien were with us from the very beginning. We did a trailer of the film with them and our editor, Alexandra Strauss, who had worked on Raoul Peck’s excellent feature I am not your negro. Each stage of the film was, artistically speaking, like a ve way ping pong match. I loved it.
G.P. Nicolas and I wanted to operate in a small-scaleway. Working with Oerd, Aurélien and Alexandra allowed us to do that.
N.C. The production company Rouge International which joined the project later was on board with this way of doing things. The producer, Julie Gayet, was, I think, drawn to the project from an emotional point of view. When we met her for the first time, she told us about her visit to the prison on Robben Island in South Africa.
G.P. And as all the accused in the film had passed through the ranks of the Communist party, it was apt that one of the co-production companies involved was called Rouge International! But on a serious level, you just have to look at the list of films that Julie Gayet and Nadia Turincev have been behind to acknowledge that we were lucky that they opened the door of their production company to us.

They faced serious charges, didn’t they ?

N.C. Absolutely. They could well have been hanged.

But not all the accused were black, were they? There was an Indian and some whites.

N.C. That’s right and in fact the apartheid government shot itself in the foot. One of the main planks of apartheid had been to divide in order to rule. Whites enjoyed all the power and the blacks had the least. The coloureds and Indians su ered but they were given certain privileges. For example in prison, Indians and coloureds got bigger rations than black inmates and were allowed to wear trousers. Black prisoners wore Bermuda shorts. That was intentionally done to degrade them because Bermudas were children’s clothes. By putting, blacks, whites and an Indian on the same bench, the government was e ectively showcasing the multiracial character of the anti apartheid movement.

The line the defendants were going to take became obvious very quickly didn’t it ? They wanted to turn the hearing into a political trial by pleading not guilty and accusing the govern- ment of being responsible for the situation in the country.

N.C. Even though the death sentence hung over them, they chose to regain control of their plight by making it a trial against apartheid. Before the trial they were forced to live in hiding. Political meetings were banned and suddenly, here in the dock, they nally had their public. Reporters and diplomats could transmit their message.
G.P. They chose this strategy despite the legal advice.They told their lawyers: ‘We are the clients. You do what we tell you to do.’

Listening to the statements of the accused during the trial and then speaking to them 57 years later, do you feel the role of Nelson Mandela is less decisive than what we’ve been led to believe ?

G.P. Even if our film has never been a question of debunking the Mandela myth, it seemed absolutely crucial to us pay tribute to the collective spirit of the men starting with accused number two, Walter Sisulu.
N.C. As the lawyer George Bizos said, Sisulu was the ANC’s éminence grise. He knew the history of the movement inside out and was very close to the people who lived in the Soweto township. The collective pushed Mandela forward because, of course, he was brilliant but also because he was from a royal family. He was also a marvellous orator. He was one of the few black men to have become a lawyer. As for Sisulu, he only had a certi cate for a basic education.
G.P. The ANC really was a collective movement and it was in the name of the collective that they chose Mandela so that one man could embody their struggle to the entire world. Each of the accused knew every word of the speech Mandela made during the trial.

Ahmed Kathrada also had a lot of influence, didn’t he ?

G.P. For sure. His in uence gives us an insight into Mandela’s politics. Ahmed Kathrada was a disciple of Ghandi. Mandela’s politics of resilience didn’t come from out of the blue.

It’s heart wrenching when Kathrada talks about his trip to europe and his first cafe on a terrace.

G.P. It reminds me of the migrants who I come across all the time at Porte de la Chapelle in Paris. I am struck by the resonance because of what is happening today in Europe.
N.C. There seems to beanoverridingcruelty which stops people from coming together. It’s an ill that we thought was well behind us but it rises up far too often.

How do you explain this almost undying international infatuation for Mandela ?

N.C. I’ll say it again. It was apartheid which cemented his role as leader. The trial was ocially recorded as ‘the State against Mandela and the others’. The South African government explicitly used his name and did not mention the others. Ultimately you risked a ne or a prison sentence if you had a photograph of Mandela. Apartheid helped shape the icon.
G.P. Why this infatuation for Mandela? This question transcends South Africa. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel, Stéphane Hessel, Nelson Mandela guides generations in a world where it will never be good to accept the intolerable. Let’s be honest, Nelson Mandela and the others were on a path where their personal lives were secondary to the cause that they were defending. What would we have done in their place ? How many resistance ghters like Jean Moulin were there in France in 1940 ? The State Against Mandela And The Others stirs up notions of engagement, resistance, resilience and indignation. These are ideas that make sense in a society that becomes a little more individualistic every day.

During the trial, the co-accused spoke about opting for violence. But they used sabotage instead of terrorism, guerrilla strikes or armed revolution.

N.C. Resorting to sabotage was a huge step for the ANC. Historically it was a movement of non-violence. But due to the harshness of the regime, its rank and le members no longer accepted this stance. But they didn’t want to spoil their future. Planting bombs at 2am did not risk setting all white people against the organisation. And in this way the ANC didn’t give up its hope for a multiracial South Africa in which everyone could live together. The ANC showed immense patience on this issue.

Although it’s a documentary, The State Against Mandela And The Others contains all the elements of a fictional drama, doesn’t it?

N.C. It’s like a Hollywood movie. There are all the characters. Percy Yutar, the relentlessly aggressive racist prosecutor. He’s obviously the bad man. Quartus de Wet, the judge. He’s a bit jaded and you can’t really guess what he’s thinking. He adds to the suspense along with the turncoats, the super heroic antics of the accused and the lawyers.
G.P. There are also the women who were involved. They were activists who played a central role in this struggle. Before I made the film, I was unaware of just how essential a part women played in the battle against apartheid. In our film - just like in any Hollywood film, there are incredible love stories. My eternal thanks to some of those women for sharing their memories as part of our story about their men.
N.C. It was important to have the wives and the children of the accused. When you take risks and give yourself to a cause, it’s the families that su er the most. These women told us so. The accused are very humble men and they tend to play down the su ering and the noble nature of their choices. They were totally devoted. For them it all seemed rather obvious. They had a goal and the rest was simply collateral damage. Well, that’s what they try to make us believe.

The film is quite simple in format, isn’t it ?

N.C. When you’ve got such subject matter, why go looking for complications ? We assumed that calm, sober surroundings would be t the extraordinary dignity of our main characters.
G.P. To paraphrase the film director Michel Audiard, I’d say: ‘When men serve 26 year prison sentences solely so that blacks, coloured and Indians can have the same rights as whites, people who have been reared in democracies should listen.’


Nicolas Champeaux & Gilles Porte


Work in progress

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