Category Archives: Christopher Nizza

David Harvey moderates discussion on Dear Mandela with Mnikelo Ndabankulu & Zodwa Nsibande in New York on September 7th 2012

Dear Mandela – David Harvey moderates discussion of new film on South Africa’s Shackdwellers movement | Fri Sept 7th 4pm

Friday, September 7th, 2012
4 pm – 7 pm
Elebash Recital Hall
CUNY Graduate Center, 365 5th Ave, New York City
Free and open to the public

Dear Mandela is the remarkable story of Abahlali BaseMjondolo – Zulu for ‘people of the shacks’ – the largest movement of the poor to emerge in post-apartheid South Africa. Dear Mandela was awarded the ‘Best South African Documentary’ prize after its World Premiere at the Durban International Film Festival, and top prize, the ‘Grand Chameleon Award’, at its US premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival.

Discussion to follow screening with:

Directors Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza
Willie Baptist, a formerly homeless father who came out of the Watts uprisings, the Black Student Movement, and working as a lead organizer with the United Steelworkers has 40 years of experience organizing amongst the poor including with the National Union of the Homeless, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Welfare Rights Union, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and many other networks. Willie serves as the Poverty Initiative Scholar-in-Residence and is the Coordinator of the Poverty Scholars Program.
Moderated by David Harvey, author of Rebel Cities (Verso, 2012).

DEAR MANDELA World Premiere in Durban on July 26, 2011

Feature-length documentary film
Directed by Dara Kell & Christopher Nizza

When their shantytowns are threatened with mass eviction, three ‘young lions’ of South Africa’s new generation rise from the shacks and take their government to the highest court in the land, putting the promises of democracy to the test.

DEAR MANDELA will World Premiere at the Durban International Film Festival on July 26, 2011.


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Sundance Institute: Beyond the World Cup

Beyond the World Cup
Recent Lab Fellows Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza’s documentary Dear Mandela portrays a disheartening injustice with an even more inspiring resistance.

Posted by Nate von Zumwalt on Oct 26, 2010 at 05:10 pm.

As beneficiaries of this summer’s World Cup basked in its euphoric glow, a much dimmer reality played out in the slums of South Africa. Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza, codirectors and producers of Dear Mandela, took their project to Sundance Institute’s Film Composers and Documentary Lab and the Documentary Producing Lab this summer in search of music and structure capable of evoking the passion and emotion of the Shack Dwellers Movement. What they discovered was a tireless support group, a lifetime’s worth of lessons, and a renewed drive for completing their film.

Can you introduce us to Dear Mandela?

Dara Kell: The film delves into the lives and dreams of three young shack dwellers who live in the vast slums of Durban, South Africa. In 2007, when the government promised to eradicate the slums and began evicting shack dwellers from their homes, Zama, Mnikelo, and Mazwi joined their communities in resisting the evictions on the streets and in the courts. We follow their journey over three years as they take their case to the highest court in the land and learn some hard lessons about leadership along the way.

How did you get involved in telling this story?

Dara Kell: We read about a new social movement in South Africa that was made up of the poorest, most marginalized members of South Africa: the shack dwellers. We visited the movement in 2007 and were struck by the commitment of young people to organizing in their communities. The government had just passed the Slums Act, which legalized the evictions in ways that violated the rights afforded to shack dwellers in the Constitution. We thought that the legal resistance to the Slums Act could provide a narrative arc for the story, and when we found our three main characters, we knew we had the makings of a film.

Christopher Nizza: I had been working for years with grassroots organizations in low-income areas across the U.S. around issues related to housing, health care, living wage jobs, and other things that millions of people around the world consider to be ‘economic human rights.’ In South Africa, we found similar forces at play in the most economically unequal country in the world. Young people we met and filmed shared stories about not telling fellow students at school that they went home to a shack for fear of being judged and ostracized. We then heard realizations like, ‘Just because we are poor in life, doesn’t mean we are poor in mind.’ It is this ‘beautiful struggle’ driven by the young generation that I saw as being relevant all over the world as more and more people find themselves living in similar conditions while dealing with the same social misconceptions.

The film is a look at contemporary South Africa—what did the recent World Cup mean for the country?

Dara Kell: The sinister reality is that in the years leading up to the World Cup, thousands of shack dwellers were evicted from their homes, their shacks demolished, families left homeless, or relocated to government-built shacks far from the city.

We were filming during the World Cup, and there were moments when it was thrilling to witness the euphoria – the flags on every car, the media heaping praise on South Africans for pulling it off with barely a hitch, South Africans black and white enjoying the games. South Africa is a strange country, though. If you step beyond the area around the magnificent Moses Mabhida stadium and the fan parks, and venture beyond the quiet suburbs that are still mostly segregated, you’ll find a vastly different South Africa.

Christopher Nizza: For our characters, the World Cup seemed to provide nothing. They were unable to afford the high ticket prices for games, they didn’t benefit from the temporary increase in job opportunities, and they were even barred from selling goods on the streets during the time of the World Cup. As taxpayers, they contributed to the reported $6 billion spent by the government to build the infrastructure that attracted FIFA to choose South Africa as the 2010 host country.

Talk about your overall Lab experiences and how your film has since changed.

Dara Kell: The Composers Lab gave us space to experiment with music in a way we wouldn’t be able to in the normal workflow of creating the score. We were paired with Ted Reichman, a very talented composer who by the end of the five-day Lab had come up with a score for a key scene in the film. Over the course of the Lab we were questioned, probed, and pushed to get to the core of what we were trying to build towards in that scene and in the larger story.

In terms of creative support, to be in a room full of wise, creative souls who generously gave feedback at a critical point in the making of our film was almost too good to be true. We have a two-hour early rough cut – right away we were told that the first 15 minutes wasn’t getting us to where we need to be. Cut it! Character development, edit strategy, editing style, what was working, what wasn’t working, what’s missing, what the film really means —the list goes on, and amounts to a roadmap for Dear Mandela and a treasure trove of hard-won advice that I will carry with me for the rest of my filmmaking career.

Christopher Nizza: Our experience exceeded even our lofty expectations. A danger we strive to avoid as we craft Dear Mandela is the situation where we are working in isolation. The Labs were a great opportunity to get out of our edit bay in New York City and into the peaceful, working environment of the mountains. The space and keen feedback and discussion sessions we had for our film and participated in for the other films were extremely valuable to us.

Was there a specific inspiring moment that you’ll take away from the Labs?

Dara Kell: On the last day of the Labs, after a week of intensive discussions about music, storytelling, feedback on our rough cut, one-on-one sessions with the advisors, packing my mind with inspiration and guidance for the next leg of making this film, we all went for a hike. We got to the top of the mountain and stopped at a waterfall, which was smashing into the rocks below. We were scattered in small groups around the waterfall, giggling and getting soaked by the spray. I looked around and thought about the individual moments I’d shared with every single filmmaker, musician, and Advisor there. Each artist had generously shared with me their deep commitment to honing their craft and to using their films and their music to create a better and more interesting world. I felt so honored to be in their midst.

Pambazuka Interview With Christopher Nizza and Dara Kell on ‘Dear Mandela’

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The first question is on the title – Why ‘Dear Mandela’ and not Mbeki?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: ‘Dear Mandela’ examines how the lives of the poorest South Africans – those who had the most hope when Apartheid officially ended in 1994 – have changed in the 17 years since Mandela was released from prison. . Again and again, we heard appreciation for what Mandela did – that he sacrificed twenty-seven years of his freedom for the freedom of South Africans. The name ‘Dear Mandela’ emerged after spending time with shack dwellers who told us they saw Nelson Mandela as a ‘second Jesus Christ’. For many South Africans, when Mandela was released from prison, a ‘better life for all’, which became the rallying cry for the newly elected ANC government finally seemed possible. The people we interviewed often wondered how Mandela would feel if he was allowed to visit the informal settlements, if he saw that conditions have not only failed to improve since the end of Apartheid, they have worsened. Mandela seemed to many of the people we spoke to, to be the one person who could change things, and so this short film almost takes the form of a plea – not just to Mandela, but to the world – to see what has been deliberately kept from view by a current South African government intent on creating ‘world class cities’ in preparation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can you talk to PZN about the evictions? How are they reminiscent of the apartheid government? Or is that too much of a stretch?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: While we were filming in Durban with Abahlali baseMjondolo, we spoke to many shack dwellers who were facing eviction. Zamise Hohlo, a sixteen-year-old girl who was born and still lives in the Shannon Drive informal settlement, told us that municipal workers came and demolished her shack while she was at work. Sitting amidst the wreckage, she told us that she was at a crossroads: she could rebuild her shack, but the municipal workers had informed her that if she rebuilt, they would just come and tear it down again.

We have found that there are stereotypes about shack dwellers that go against all of our experience in the time we spent with them. These stereotypes make it easier for the public to turn a blind eye to what is happening them, and make it easier for municipal workers to do their job of ‘clearing the slums’. One of the reasons we want to make this film is because by letting the shack dwellers speak for themselves, their dignity is respected, and our hope is that viewers will be able to see the shack dwellers not as illegal squatters who should be pushed out of the city, but as citizens of South Africa who have the same rights to housing under the Constitution.

Yes, in some ways the evictions are reminiscent of evictions during the Apartheid era. The notorious new ‘Slums Act’ certainly evokes the Native Land Act of 1913, The Group Areas Act of 1950, The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act of 1951 – acts which remove people from their communities and place them far away from the city, away from work, school, clinics. Some shack dwellers told us that what they are experiencing is a ‘New Apartheid’ between the rich and poor. Indeed, several people we interviewed said that life was better under Apartheid. The statistics suggest that life for the poorest of the poor was better under Apartheid – a UN study showed that the number of people living on less that $1 a day has doubled since 1994. These charges are sure to stir controversy and that is one of the motivations we have to continue on this project, to illuminate the rarely told story of post-apartheid South Africa?s most marginalized.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can you talk about the role of film in bringing about change?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: In much of the world, the way we communicate is visual. The visual medium is a language that everyone understands from advertisements on the street to television to a growing use of the Internet. While we are working towards a longer film, we posted the 6-minute version of ‘Dear Mandela’ on YouTube and were able to share the insights and struggles of South African shack dwellers instantaneously. Within days, hundreds of people had watched the film. In an age where the gap between rich and poor is increasing globally, there is a need for stories which show not just the plight of the poor, but the fight that they are engaged in. This is one of the main ideas behind Sleeping Giant, our media collective/production company. The corporate media and even some prominent left academics tend to stereotype the world’s poor as being this unruly mass of dangerous, lazy, uneducated people unable to contribute to discussions about issues affecting them most. Through film and video projects produced involving groups like Abahlali we hope to smash those stereotypes by providing a space for people to tell the story of their plight and fight thus projecting a more realistic portrayal.

Those who are struggling to survive while organizing for a better life need our encouragement and support. The film is a celebration of the work of Abahlali as well of the almost sacred meeting space they have created, where old and young are welcomed and respected; of their refusal to accept the broken promises of the government; of their continuing to march in peaceful protest in the face of intimidating police brutality. And so while many of the stories in ‘Dear Mandela’ are disheartening, what we want to portray is a community that is figuring out the real meaning of democracy – democracy that is a far cry from ‘one man, one vote’ – it’s what Abahlali calls a ‘living politics.’

We’ve done research, and some preliminary filming, and the six-minute film ‘Dear Mandela’ is the culmination of that effort, but we intend to return for a much longer time, where we aim to interview government officials and other relevant players, to show many more sides of a very complex situation

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What other films have you made/are making?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL This is our first venture into the world of feature documentary filmmaking. We have both worked as editors on other documentaries, like the Academy Award-nominated Jesus Camp, State of Fear, and others. We have also led filmmaking workshops for community leaders, to both encourage the use of media in their political work and transfer the skills required to produce media.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What can other Africans and international friends do to help out?

CHRISTOPHER NIZZA AND DARA KELL: From what we could see a major problem for Abahlali is lack of resources. We witnessed how they maximize literally every rusted nail and every tattered piece of wood. This goes on to money that is raised as all funds are decided by collective how to be spent. We saw this as some money came in following the tragic Christmas night shack fires at the Foreman Road. Very careful and respectful consideration goes into how all monies are spent. It is much different then donating money to an NGO where the people living in struggle are more often not the ones making decisions. People interesting in supporting can get some ideas here ( on the Abahlali website. The website is also extremely rich with days worth of wonderful reading for anyone interested in this extremely important and courageous work.

*Dara Kell is a South African documentary filmmaker. She divides her time between South Africa and New York, where she edits documentaries and leads grassroots video-making workshops.

**Christopher Nizza is a New York born, bred and based director and editor. He also has worked on a project in the U.S. called the University of the Poor which works to provide education and exchange in a variety of disciplines to organizations working in the struggle to end poverty forever.