On access and the making of Prisoner 467/64

 As we rose to the sad news of the passing of Mr Andrew Mlangeni this week, we had been working on the third draft of an essay in the filmmaker and noted.man contributor, Mr Lebogang Rasethaba’s ongoing series on access. It is, as you will read below, an intimate insider portrait of the Rivonia trialist through the prism of  the poetic and infuriating process of making Rasethaba’s award-winning 2016 documentary Prisoner 467/64: The Untold Legacy of Andrew Mlangeni. Today we publish that essay with heavy hearts that are at once bursting with joy at being able to share just a slice of a colossal story.   

After spending 26 years on Robben Island, Ntate Andrew Mlangeni insists he isn’t angry. However, he may regret trying to overthrow the apartheid government because it cost him seeing his daughters grow up. “But no, I am not angry” he repeats.  It is 2013 and the Andrew Mlangeni Foundation has commissioned a politician to write a book about him. By chance, we are invited to the first meeting, our initial brief to make a behind-the-scenes video of the book writing process. 15 minutes max, the chairman of the foundation – my father – stresses. The first meeting is a messy affair; disunity and discord, a disaster.

The author is there, his researcher, me and my cameras, my producer, my father and a lady who, unbeknownst to all of us, including herself, will become the narrative glue of the film we don’t yet know we are making. Today, however, she is being asked to be the editor of the Andrew Mlangeni Biography, a biography she doesn’t want to edit. I can sense her apprehension. We all can. But she is also a struggle veteran and that means she can’t really say no. It would be weird. Everyone is calling her comrade. Through the course of making the film we will come to realise that the struggle happened to a lot of people. We know quite intimately through history, who went out of their way to fight racism and be a part of something bigger, and who was at the right place at the right time. An older white woman with Greek heritage, she joined the struggle with active intent, it didn’t just happen to her.

Relationships collapse when expectations aren’t met and right there and then, in that room, before any of these relationships are even formed, they are already collapsing. Was it a meeting about the book? What book? Are you a writer or an MEC? Has your researcher ever researched? And who the fuck are these guys with their cameras? They say it’s hard to track people’s interior dialogues because all the instruments that can be used to measure them change their form drastically, giving them a new life. For example, we will often try use words or pictures to try measure interior dialogues, but that defeats the purpose doesn’t it? The more enterprising scholars in this field have suggested that body language is the purest metric of interior dialogues. The lady’s discomfort becomes a fascination to me and I can’t stop looking at her every weight transfer, every shift, from leaning back in the chair to forward, elbows on the shiny varnished brown table, a raised eyebrow, “this is a fucken joke” I can hear her think. 

“Today she is being asked to be the editor of the Andrew Mlangeni Biography, a biography she doesn’t want to edit. I can sense her apprehension. We all can. But she is also a struggle veteran and that means she can’t really say no. It would be weird.”

When I watch the footage from that day, I am both impressed and shocked at the ignorance of my own ability. We were way in over our heads and as a filmmaker this is a feeling I would have for the rest of my career. The first pre-interview is conducted by the author and after five hours we are still in the 1930’s, this isn’t going to work for us. We decide to schedule our own time to ask questions for our  video, because we need brevity and it is taking the author hours to unpack the details of one lunar calendar. We need brevity.

After our first session of interviews we come to learn that the author isn’t the problem. Ntate Mlangeni has lived a long life, we are making a film about him and he wants to make sure we get the right information. The long, drawn out, overly detailed interviews are an act  that only serves to uphold the righteousness of history, under the authority of his failing memory. The process is as beautiful as it is tiresome. A week later we are approaching the treason trial, things are getting exciting, but what we quickly realise is that there were many years of political inactivity in the country, years where nothing happened. “Let’s see. I got married, made children and not much happened for years after that.” We would leave Dube feeling robbed of an afternoon if the only new piece of information was about Mlangeni’s honeymoon. Making a historical film is interesting because it can feel like chasing the past. Each day I make the drive to Soweto I wonder if today is the day he tells us about the day they got arrested. I am blind to my obsession, nothing can satisfy me. I want the details of the arrest. Where were you? Where was Mandela? Sisulu ? Mbeki ? What did they say to you? What time of day was it? “Well, you must remember”, he would start, and I would sink into my chair, petulant and impatient, a child, because I would know that meant at least another four hours of a story I didn’t care for.

“After our first session of interviews we come to learn that the author isn’t the problem. Ntate Mlangeni has lived a long life, we are making a film about him and he wants to make sure we get the right information. The long drawn out overly detailed interviews are an act  that only serves to uphold the righteousness of history, under the authority of his failing memory.”

Every interview is a race against time. Mlangeni only has a few lucid hours a day, then he gets tired, forgetful and irritable. At the moment we know we are done for the day, I drive to the fish ’n chips at the original Maponya Mall and weigh up the day’s wins and losses, standing in the queue, lost. “Bottle or can?” a faint voice emerges. My interior dialogue is becoming unrecognisable to me. “Bottle or can?” I stand staring at the mirage of life floating outside, void of detail, I can’t tell where one taxi hooter starts and the next one ends. “Sorry abuti, o ba tla bottle or can?” I am so disconnected from myself I am mishearing the lady’s voice behind counter as my interior dialogue. I am exhausted but also young enough for that to not register as exhaustion. It just becomes a sensation, one of many things I am experiencing without taking any meaningful cognitive inventory of what is happening to me. And I am grateful for that lack of self-awareness at the time. An older me might have taken a day off to rest, but the young me wakes up the next morning and keeps going. And that is the staying power that will result in us making a really beautiful, well-rounded film that made Mlangeni proud – of the film itself, but also himself. I can’t tell you the actual moment the project shifted from a 15-minute behind the scenes film about a book, into an award-winning documentary that filled cinemas around the world. But the success of this film also fills with me a sadness that all the laurels can’t erase. It is the one time I saw Mlangeni really angry.

My producer has come into some brilliant archive footage. In the footage he has just been released from Robben Island and he is young, full of life, a paragon of prosperity. Sitting in the same lounge we were sitting in, Mlangeni is young and hopeful, he looks restored. Imagine the face of someone who was recently released from prison who thought they were going to die in prison. It is a 20-minute interview with that face, the face of someone who has not only cheated death, but has beaten it. Here is the face of one of the men in a group of twelve who risked their lives to overthrow the unjust apartheid government, got life imprisonment and in a beautiful twist of millions of coherent colluding factors, they are now finally released, 26 years later. The point of the film, however, is to shift the focus of the struggle for liberation from one individual to a wide group. It wasn’t only Nelson Mandela, it was a lot of moving parts and this film wanted to shine the light on one of those moving parts as a way of inspiring people to become a moving part in the continued fight of living in an equal society. We were naive to believe that, and even today, years later, I am still naive enough to believe that.   

Excitedly, we return to the edit suite, sprinkle the footage throughout our film and it makes the film. It is alive and Mlangeni is texturally present throughout: the struggle didn’t happen to him, he leaned into it with mindful militancy. One day we get an email from someone in the UK telling us how much they want for the footage. I can’t remember the figure but I can remember Mlangeni’s outrage at the idea of buying his own image. We are in his house and he is either packing for a trip or coming back from one. I just remember he is dressed up: a nice shirt, suspenders, pin-stripe pants. He is pacing, walking in and out of his room, into the lounge, back into the bedroom, then out to the kitchen. Have you ever seen the trauma of someone who has just had their car stolen? The denial will make them look in dustbins or under other cars.  I want him to shoot me, the messenger. I feel guilty, complicit. I still carry the weight of that anger in my heart today because it’s a reality a lot South African storytellers face. We simply don’t own the right to the images of our own fucken history and if that doesn’t break your heart then you aren’t paying attention.

“I still carry the weight of that anger in my heart today because it’s a reality a lot South African storytellers face. We simply don’t own the right to the images of our own fucken history and if that doesn’t break your heart then you aren’t paying attention.”

I remember watching a Michael Moore documentary and being gobsmacked by the crushing realisation that he made a documentary without filming a single shot outside of the interviews. The entire documentary was made up of archive and I remember making a promise to myself to make films that became part of the archive of what life looked like while I was experiencing it. For people like Mlangeni, the archive is there, it’s just not owned by people like me. Access to archive is the cornerstone of a healthy film economy. How can we make meaningful films about the past as a way of healing from it, if we don’t even have access to it?    

A friend has come to visit from Spain and I can’t see him because I am with Mlangeni. He is blown way. “You mean you are in his house? How?” I have taken for granted the access I have to Mlangeni. His memory, his personal space – he let us read letters he had written to his late wife, his inner most intimate thoughts, regrets, fears. On another day, the producer and I have stayed up quite late, drinking whisky with the old man and in the morning we are a little hangover. We cancel interviews for that day. Mlangeni had showed us vulnerability, his mortality, he was vincible and he let us see that. To think that with all this access to the individual we still didn’t have access to his archive was paralysing and downright unfair. I didn’t get into this game looking for fairness but when I see unfairness you can’t expect me to like it. If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. Being asked to buy that archive was a humiliating reminder of our pole position of powerlessness in the world, in history. In a society that is constructed from the elaborate scheming of various vectors of power, as a black person I have experienced extreme powerlessness many times.

Picture this. Sitting in the back seat of my mother’s red shiny Mazda driving to school one day – a Jewish pre-school in Main Reef – it’s a chilly winter morning in 1989, I am 6 years old. My mother is a young attorney, strong and beautiful. A nervous driver, she stalls the car at a traffic light and scratches the taxi in front of us. A tall slim man wearing a spotty jumps out the car, vapour billowing from this screaming mouth as he approaches. My mom frantically tries to close her window but he moves quickly, purposefully, hellbent on restitution for the misdeeds my mother has carried out on his bumper. His pinky nail is extremely long and sharp, he is prodding my mother in her face with it. “I will hurt you,” he threatens. I am strapped to the backseat of the car, screaming, crying, swinging my fists at nothing. It’s a cycle of powerlessness that would repeat itself throughout my life.

“I will hurt you,” he threatens (my mother). I am strapped to the backseat of the car, screaming, crying, swinging my fists at nothing. It’s a cycle of powerlessness that would repeat itself throughout my life.”

Being the first black kid in a white school; getting called a kaffir for bowling out someone during break time cricket; getting laughed at for my kinky hair, the contents of my lunchbox, mispronouncing english words, bagging Accused Number 1 whenever someone farted in class; catching public transport to school and not having a ready response to the proverbial inquisition, “why don’t your parents fetch you, don’t they love you?” As I got older my father made it his life’s mission to teach me how to fight this feeling and try find small ways to reclaim power in spaces that existed to strip me off my dignity. “Winning for black people isn’t about personal glory but punishing white people.” I think I was 10 when he said that to me. Imagine. Almost 20 years later, being asked to buy that archive brought back the same crushing feeling of powerlessness. Access to archive is about a lot of things, including a source of power that emanates from us seeing ourselves as reliable witnesses of our own history. Memory isn’t about remembering the past but rather constructing the future. How do we construct a powerful render of the future of black people if we don’t have access to the archive of our experiences?

Eventually, after fighting with whoever claimed to be the rightful owner of the footage, we got it for free, in monetary value. But we lost time and energy we could have used for something else, and that is far more valuable. I wonder how far we would be as people if we didn’t expend so much energy in fighting for things we shouldn’t be fighting for? Imagine being hit on the head with a stone and then asking for permission to keep that stone. 

Image: Mail & Guardian

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