A quasi-docu about the formative years of the African National Congress that relies heavily on handsomely-mounted dramatic recreations to tell its story, “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela” reps a strong calling card for U.S.-born helmer Thomas Allen Harris, the stepson of ANC co-founder Benjamin Pule “Lee” Leinaeng. Specialized pic will be in demand at socially conscious fests, could pull some limited specialized exhib interest, and has a bright future on cable and homevid.
Subtitled “A Son’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes” in the press material, docu was inspired by filmmaker Harris’ visit to Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 2000 for Leinaeng’s funeral. Realizing he never really got to know his step-dad and discovering a cache of clippings kept by Lee, Harris rushed into production on this film.
Pic follows Leinaeng’s incredible journey from South Africa to Botswana to Dar-Es-Salaam and on to 1963 East Germany, where he studies journalism. Later, he earns a scholarship to Lincoln U. in rural Pennsylvania and segues into an undergraduate degree from Temple.
In New York, he’s instrumental in setting up an ANC office, while simultaneously enrolling at NYU and courting the helmer’s mother. Leinaeng earns a master’s degree from NYU in 1976, and joins the U.N.’s anti-apartheid office in 1981. Eight years later he begins revisiting Bloemfontein, retiring there full time in 1997.
For auds only vaguely aware of the details of ANC’s gestation and Nelson Mandela’s place in the org, work places the rocky history in detailed context. More knowledgeable viewers will appreciate the rare footage and clippings uncovered by Harris.
Per helmer, the large cast is culled from regional theater orgs and the thesps have no prior experience with film or TV work. Largely improvised perfs are fine down the line, with Harris’ shrewd blocking creating a forceful ensemble feel.
Tech package is solid, with fine handheld lensing by Jonathan Kovel and David Forbes evoking the nervous energy of the times on a variety of actual locations in and around Bloemfontein. Art director Dylan Lloyd and other key crew off a convincing period feel. Co-producer Rudean Leinaeng is the helmer’s mother, and evocative score is by former Living Color frontman Vernon Reid.