Behind the Lens: Dear Mandela

Published: 2 years ago

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Words Hadeel Mohammed

Dara Kell, co-director of Dear Mandela, shares the story behind the making of the acclaimed film, which has won a string of awards including the Grand Jury Prize at Brooklyn Film Festival, Best South African Documentary at Durban International Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Montreal International Black Film Festival.

Dear Mandela follows three leading activists (Mazwi, Zama and Mnikelo) as they mount a daunting challenge against South Africa's Slums Act for an end to the mass evictions of shack dwellers.

The process of making Dear Mandela was a kind of blossoming, a process of discovery. Initially we made a short 10-minute film about the movement, the conditions in the settlements and the evictions of shack dwellers. We knew that there was so much more to tell and so we kept returning to Durban to keep filming.

Growing up during apartheid was surreal and nobody mentioned the word ‘apartheid’ at school, which at the time was normal and now, as an adult, seems completely bizarre. I was 14 when the first democratic elections happened, and that time of hope, of promise, of the sense of a brand new country being built on the ashes of an oppressive, evil regime, made a huge impression on me. When we started making the film, South Africa had been a democratic country for 15 years.

For an 80-year-old woman living in a shack in deplorable conditions without sanitation, water or electricity, to tell me – a child of this new generation – that her life was better during apartheid was a turning point. How could those trusted leaders who sacrificed so much for a democratic country now become the oppressors; instituting evictions, breaking promises and engaging in massive corruption?

If I wrote a letter I would first tell Nelson Mandela how much I respected his leadership, his courage and his sacrifice. I would thank him for bringing about a democratic South Africa in my lifetime. I would tell him, frankly, that I’m disappointed that he didn’t speak out, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has, against the corruption and harsh repression of human-rights defenders that has increased in South Africa over the last decade. I would tell him what I have seen and heard over the last few years of making the film – things that I’m sure would make him sad and angry. And I would tell him that there is hope, that many young people in South Africa and around the world believe in the same things he fought for: equality and a society where everyone has the basic necessities of a dignified life; shelter, food, water, sanitation, electricity, education, living-wage work.

I think the message for international audiences is that the struggle in South Africa didn’t end in 1994 and that political freedom is just part of what is needed. We hear people saying, 'What good is my vote if I can’t feed my child?'

In South Africa, shack dwellers are seen as less than human and this is what enables others to look away when they drive past the vast settlements. It’s easy to ignore and to continue with comfortable life as usual. Politicians, who rarely set foot inside the settlements except during election time, find it easy – or at least justifiable – to evict people and leave kids homeless. The film asks audiences to change how they relate to others, especially poor people. Mazwi says in the film, "I may be poor in life but I am not poor in mind". If people take only one thing away from the film I hope that’s it.  

Born: Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Studied: Documentary Filmmaking and Political Science at Rhodes University

Lives: United States/South Africa

Career highlight: "Looking back, I’m so grateful and relieved that we finally finished the film. It took longer than I expected, mostly due to lack of funding. We had to finish, of course, because we knew that the story needed to be told and we felt a great sense of responsibility towards the Abahlali members, who had graciously spent so much time with us. But there were times where I really didn’t know how we were going to finish and making the film took all of our income and life savings.

Next project: This is our first film and I learned a huge amount. Hopefully we get to continue making films – I regard it as a great privilege and the most thrilling job I could imagine!

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