White South African lawyer and human-rights advocate Andrea Durbach is reunited with the black South Africans whose lives she helped save in “A Common Purpose.” This emotionally affecting chronicle of the infamous “Upington 25,” trial which lasted from 1985-91, won the audience vote for best docu at the Sydney fest and reps a career highlight for respected Aussie filmmaker Mitzi Goldman. Pubcasters and fests should take note.
Perfectly summed up as “the pinnacle of perverse apartheid insanity” by John Carlin, a British reporter who covered the story, the Upington case involved 25 people who were convicted of the murder of a black policeman. Due to the appalling “common purpose” law, many of the “guilty” were bystanders or not even at the scene; 14 were sentenced to death. An unassuming yet inspiring figure, Durbach recalls her experiences as a junior lawyer defending her clients against brutal state machinery. More than simply hugs-and-tears reunions, Durbach’s meetings with many of the survivors prompt illuminating discussion on the realities of life in contempo South Africa. Archival footage of the trial and surrounding events packs a wallop; technical presentation is simple and effective.