Dara Kell discusses her documentary film ‘Dear Mandela’
The daily Fight for Human Rights in South Africa.
The daily fight for the human rights of millions of people in South Africa has been successfully brought to life in a documentary film called ‘Dear Mandela’. This factual and emotional account of the Shack Dwellers Movement exposes the corruption, inhumanities and raw disregard for human life, which still thrives in the country.
This thought-provoking documentary, directed by Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza, follows the lives of three brave young people (Mnikelo, Zama and Mazwi) living in Shantytowns. It shows their rise from the slums on a journey, which sees them successfully tackle the brutal tyranny that deprives them, and millions of inhabitants, of their basic human rights. From protecting against unprecedented attacks in the middle of the night to changing government legislation, this film certainly shows that while one person can make a difference, three can change a country.
Find out how ‘Dear Mandela’ came to life in this exclusive interview with Dara Kell (Co-Director/Producer).
Gail: What were the main elements that inspired your desire to direct and produce Dear Mandela?
Dara: In 2007, Christopher Nizza (co-director) and I read an article, ‘The Struggle is a School’ by Richard Pithouse, and that was the trigger for the film. The article was beautifully written, and described the birth of a new social movement led by people living in shacks in Durban. The movement is called Abahlali baseMjondolo, Zulu term for ‘Residents of the Shacks’.
We were immediately struck by the beauty and clarity of their politics and philosophy. They weren’t only talking about what is wrong with South Africa, but they were also articulating a profound vision of what the world could be, how we could build a society based on respect, where everyone counts. It sounds utopian but they are very practical about it. They call it ‘living politics’. It’s about treating people with respect, providing the things – water, electricity, sanitation – that everyone needs to survive. It’s about the government consulting with people, rather than evicting them and leaving them homeless.
We visited the movement in 2007 and the members of the Abahlali movement were resisting an especially brutal wave of evictions, which were happening extensively in Durban and in other areas of South Africa. The evictions, in almost every case, were illegal and violated South Africa’s constitution. We witnessed a young girl whose shack had been destroyed by municipal workers just an hour before we arrived. We also began to note that young people were rising into leading roles within the movement. Many of them were too young to remember the glorious day when Nelson Mandela walked free in 1990. They were passionate and compelling – not a ‘lost generation’ at all. We couldn’t walk away – we knew we had to make the film.
Gail: Were you aware of the seriousness of the Shack Dwellers’ situation in South Africa prior to joining the film team?
Dara: I knew about it on an intellectual and political level. But spending time there and meeting those most affected made me realize that I had only been scratching at the surface of things. That prompted me to want to delve deeper, to really understand the situation and get to know people at the forefront of the movement.
Gail: What, in your opinion, is the main message the film is sending to the World?
Dara: We envision a world where every human being has shelter, food, water, and sanitation – the basic necessities of a dignified life. We envision a world where nobody has to live in a slum, and where nobody is evicted. Yet around the world, close to 1 billion people live in slums, and every year an estimated 15 million people are forcibly evicted from their homes. In South Africa, a strong social movement rooted in the struggles of ordinary poor and working people, combined with creative use of the law, realized an important victory: stopping forced evictions for thousands of people living in shantytowns.
Dear Mandela follows this victory, from the streets to the highest court in the land. It explores themes of leadership, the plight of the poor, democracy and dignity. The enduring message of the film is that every single person needs to be respected. Poor people around the world are disregarded, discriminated against and often treated as less than human. In South Africa, 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 children 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.”
I think the message is: ORGANIZE. Join together with your neighbours to fight injustice around you. RESIST individualism, BUILD collectivism. We recently toured universities in the United States, and Mnikelo and Zodwa, 28-year-old founding leaders of the movement, told students, who asked how they could help, to look around them and fight injustice where they are – not to only focus on helping those in Africa, but to organize for better healthcare, to stop evictions of families facing foreclosure, and so on. Many students looked surprised – I think they were expecting the answer to follow the usual charity model.
Gail: How has making this film affected your future as a Director/Producer? Do you see yourself continuing to focus on ‘message driven films’?
Dara: While I am completely dedicated to being part of a movement to end poverty, I don’t want to limit myself to making any one type of film. Now that we’ve finished Dear Mandela I am trying to remain open to stories that captivate me – stories that I feel I can delve into over a few years. For me, it’s satisfying to track something over a long time. That way, you really get to understand a whole new world. So the only requirement for me is that the story be multi-layered. And of course it has to illuminate universal truths!
Gail: Were there any particular scenes or events which proved to be tremendously challenging when filming?
Dara: One of the biggest challenges was that none of the crew spoke Zulu. The main characters (who are fluent in English) were very accommodating in translating for us when we were in situations where Zulu was mainly being spoken. It was important to us that we make a largely verité film, so we didn’t want to stop the action while we were filming. We would keep the camera rolling even though we didn’t understand exactly what people were saying. We would pick up words here and there, and would make sure that the scene was still something that related to the overall story. This approach meant that we had a huge amount of footage to work with – scenes that sometimes ran for hours. We were very fortunate to find South Africans living in New York who believed in the film and were willing to translate every word. This painstaking process was the only way we could edit the film so that it captured the essence of the movement, the heart of the story.
Gail: It must have been a somewhat emotional journey to be a part of filming ‘Dear Mandela’. What were the dangers involved, the most joyous moments and your highlights?
Dara: The most moving moment of filming was in the Constitutional Court, the day Abahlali baseMjondolo members won the Slums Act case. The Slums Act is scrapped from the books, and the threat of massive evictions affecting thousands of people, is removed. It is a huge victory for shack dwellers and for poor people in South Africa, even though they still do not have the adequate housing they need.
The biggest challenge was earning the trust of the community we wanted to film with. When we first met members of the Abahlali movement at their headquarters in the Kennedy Road informal settlement in Durban, they grilled us for hours about who we were, what we wanted to do, why we wanted to do it. There were illiterate gogos (grandmothers), and lively teenagers. The meeting was conducted in Zulu, with English translations. Then they sent us away, and we went back to our hotel room. In our absence, they voted on whether or not to grant us access. A few hours later, we got an SMS that said we could come back – with our cameras! We were very relieved and excited to be entrusted with their story. I love that the process was so democratic – it wasn’t up to one leader, but it was a decision that was made collectively. This provided us with an excellent opportunity to tell the story from within the movement – to really understand how the movement was developing and how our young characters were evolving.
We proceeded with filming very slowly, and tried to understand what daily life in the settlements was like, and what the movement was trying to achieve. Halfway through production, at a meeting we were filming late at night, the settlement was attacked by a mysterious armed mob and we had to run for our lives. The next few days were terrifying – the leader of the movement, S’bu Zikode, was receiving death threats, and the Abahlali leaders’ shacks were demolished. Thousands of people were fleeing the settlement with only what they could carry. We had the only car around, and we helped people escape. We felt a responsibility to bear witness to what was happening. Going through a near-death experience with them really cemented our relationship, and it’s gone beyond a typical filmmaker / subject relationship. I know we’ll be involved in each others’ lives for a long time to come.
Gail: How challenging was it to assign the main roles, or did you have certain people in mind after reading the script?
Dara: We filmed with people who initially were comfortable in front of the camera, and very quickly found Mnikelo, Zama and Mazwi, the three main characters. Mnikelo is a young man who always puts his community’s needs before his own. He is a co-founder of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement and despite his young age, he has been part of many campaigns to stop evictions, fight for better conditions in the informal settlements and develop a ‘living politics’ of respect and dignity amongst shack dwellers. He is part of the ‘Right to Know’ campaign, a nation-wide coalition of people and organisations opposed to the Protection of Information Bill – also known as the Secrecy Bill – currently before the South African parliament. Over the past 5 years of filming Dear Mandela with him, we have witnessed his bravery in the face of adversity, his ability to lead by example, to communicate the movement’s goals in a compelling and clear way, and his willingness to sacrifice for the cause of human rights in South Africa. He has made his country proud, and we look forward to following his continued growth as a leader.
Gail: What do you think sets the film apart from the other films about communities/people in crises?
Dara: So many films about poverty are told by experts or focus on the white ‘saviours’ rather than showing those affected by the issue as being masters of their own destiny and capable of saving themselves. We wanted people to delve into the world that Mazwi, Zama and Mnikelo live in, so that you feel like you are walking in their shoes for a while. We shot for hours and hours, just spending time with our characters so that we could tell the story through real moments – cinema verité scenes. Sometimes magical, unexpected things happened and we were in the right place at just the right moment. We wanted the film to feel like a journey of discovery for the audience, just as it was for us while we were in production. The plot took twists and turns we could never have imagined when we started out. We had no idea that our characters would challenge the government in court – all the way up to the Constitutional Court, no less. Though we were aware of some tensions, we had no idea that the movement would be attacked by thugs loyal to the ANC. Sometimes it felt surreal – but we just kept filming. Mazwi also grew up a lot during the 4 years of filming – when we started out, he was sixteen, quite shy, and in Grade 9 – by the time we finished the film, he was a young man just starting university.
Gail: What advice might you have for new filmmakers looking to produce films which are exposing inhumanities and seeking to bring about change?
Dara: I think the most important principle for me is to listen, first, rather than going in with a preconceived idea of the ‘message’ of the film. Dear Mandela has been embraced by the shack dwellers who are the ‘stars’ of the film, and that is the most important thing to me, ultimately. They show it when they are invited to speak in other countries, and they feel that they can stand behind it – that it accurately represents their struggle.
These films are hard to finance. We found fundraising very difficult – and if it hadn’t been for our main funder, the Sundance Institute, we wouldn’t have been able to make the film in the way that we did. They believed in the film and we are so grateful for that. It was hard to convince funders to take a chance on us, as first time filmmakers, and especially with a film that could be viewed as an ‘activist’ film. We don’t see it as an activist film – we see it as a story that needed to be told, and one that somehow we were tasked with telling it. The main characters are activists, and so we had to highlight other aspects of the story in order to show that it wasn’t just about a cause – that we had a real, compelling story on our hands.
Having a parallel career – both Chris and I are documentary and TV editors – really helped. We would work freelance jobs, save money, and then be able to go and shoot the film for months at a time. That was the only way the film could get made, since we didn’t have solid funding throughout. My advice would be to learn how to edit because paying an editor is one of the biggest costs involved. Being able to at least do some of the editing is very useful – and then bringing on a great consulting editor to keep you on track, and sane. We worked very closely with Mary Manhardt who was fantastic and a much-needed third pair of eyes.
Gail: The film is being well received by the International Film Industry, how has this impacted on the plight itself i.e. is the exposure bringing about action and support?
Dara: Yes – the film has been shown in 35 countries and has been translated into 8 languages already – and more screenings and countries are being added every month. I think the film has contributed to a growing awareness of the situation in South Africa and in slums around the world. We were honoured to be nominated for an African Academy Award, and most of all we hope that the nomination will help to shine a light on the brave activists in South Africa, and indeed all over Africa, who are in a daily struggle to defend their human rights.
We always hoped to make a film that spoke to people in a way that was engaging and sometimes even funny, despite the serious subject matter. People tell us after screenings that they laughed and cried in equal measure. We have had fantastic screenings here in South Africa and in Europe so far, and we hope this is just the beginning of a long life for Dear Mandela.
Dear Mandela had its World Premiere at the Durban International Film Festival. We very much felt that the film should be shown to the world for the first time in the city in which it was made. The festival generously gave 150 tickets to members of Abahlali, and their presence at the first ever screening made it really special.
Gail: What would you say to audiences who will be viewing Dear Mandela, as to how they may become involved if they wish to?
Dara: I would encourage everyone to visit the website of the Shack Dwellers Movement, www.abahlali.org. There, you can find out more about the movement and about how best to support them. Also, visit the ‘Take Action’ section on our website www.dearmandela.com .