Khalo Matabane’s  latest film, “Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me,” screens in the Durban festival on July 18 at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. It has already unspooled at April’s Hot Docs in Toronto and won a Special Jury Prize at the International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam last November.

Although his films are clearly issue-based, the filmmaker himself is somewhat enigmatic. Not a product of any film school, Matabane has called himself a maverick. He has defined his own route, directing a 190-minute period television drama “When We Were Black” (2006), set in the turbulent 1970s, and the feature “Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon” (2005), in which the whole of Johannesburg was a character as a journalist pursued a female Somalian refugee across the city.

Variety talked with the filmmaker about his career.
Variety: You make fiction and non-fiction films. What’s your preference?

Matabane: I’m in now pre-production, shooting in August on “When We Were Black 2.” And last year I shot two commercials for Eskom (the country’s only electricity provider). And I loved it. For me, I love storytelling — it does not mater what.

Variety: One would not need to justify a look at the legacy of Nelson Mandela, especially in the wake of his death last year. But it seems like a departure from your previous preoccupations.

Matabane: It’s a long story. I was at San Sebastian in Spain and it was during the time when there was much conflict with  Basque separatist violence, shootings and kidnappings. One night while we were having dinner, a human rights lawyer I was with said to me, “You know, Spain needs a Nelson Mandela to unify the country.” I thought, “This is extraordinary — something happens in Spain and people speak about how incredible Mandela was.” And then I became interested. I never imagined I would do any project on Nelson Mandela until that moment. I had this idea of going across the world trying to figure out who Mandela is, intercut with my own memories as a child, what Nelson Mandela represented to me as a child.

Variety: What did Nelson Mandela represent to you as a child?

Matabane: The story that I heard was that he was this revolutionary. I imagined this half-man half-beast with one eye on the forehead. With six toes, who would come to liberate us, this freedom fighter. I grew up in a village where there was no television, there was nothing. There was no access. At that time there was no access to Mandela’s image. I only had my grandmother’s storytelling. So my image of him came out of all the stories I had heard of this half-man half-beast.

Variety: Before we discuss the form of the work let’s talk about the meaning. What, now, have you discovered about the icon and the myth of Mandela? Not necessarily what people have said, but you yourself — what have you discovered?

Matabane: That I, totally, will never understand him. I came out with no discovery except the fact that I will never understand him. Because I think that if you are that iconic figure, with the responsibilities of a nation in the 20th century, against the backdrop of what was happening, who do you become? Is it possible to understand what he really felt, his anguish? And I realized that it doesn’t seem like it’s possible. Somehow I kept on hoping. The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, when he won the Nobel Prize, spoke about how his father left him a suitcase full of letters; he was afraid to open that suitcase because he didn’t know what he would discover inside.

And I kept on thinking, somewhere in my imagination, that there would be letters from the real Madiba where he talks about life and politics and everyone else, and F.W. de Klerk, and how he really felt. Not as a political figure, not as a reconciler, not as this pragmatic or iconic revolutionary figure that sort of won over the United Nations, but letters in which he would just talk and say, “I’m upset at this, I didn’t like this…”

To have a piece of understanding of the human being — that was my hope.

Variety: Having come out with more questions than answers, do you then consider that the work is a failure? Or are you happy with an open-ended conclusion to the journey that you took?

Matabane: I think most filmmakers look at their work and — me especially — once you are done you see so many things. You question yourself: how effective is it? Can you change anything? Can you provoke anything?

You ask the questions in response to lining up the money and everything else. And I don’t think that’s unique to this particular project. I think it’s just every day.

The thing is, I am not the kind of filmmaker that likes to give solutions. I don’t have solutions. And you will see at the end it does have a sort of an end. But in the end I think it is OK for me not to have solutions. But the thing about it is that Madiba was in our imagination but out of sight. The myth and the reality were difficult to distinguish.

Even his passing was mythical. So for me he works more as a mythical figure. But if you try to make it tangible and try to touch him and try to explain everything in a logical sense, in a realistic sense, I think it is quite difficult to do.

Variety: You have done exceptionally well fighting formulaic filmmaking. Do you find yourself opposing money people and people working within the framework of this industry who would like to see things in a much more formulaic way? Or have you hit a formula for yourself that is yours that you perpetuate, that people are comfortable with?

Matabane: Yes and no. I think that I’ve been fortunate. When I think of my generation of filmmakers, some of them don’t even make films anymore. I think it’s always a struggle to make films and I think there’s part of it where you are fortunate and there’s part of it where I’m very persistent.

At least people say that, that I’m very persistent when I want money.

But I think people can trust that I will deliver something and it will be interesting.

Variety: The Mandela film won a prestigious Jury Prize at IDFA. Did you feel that the effort of convincing people it was a good idea was now worth it?

Matabane: Once I’m finished with a film, I really try to develop. I don’t engage with that film after a particular period of launching it because you can be caught, traveling with the film for two or three years. I try to make sure that I use the excitement to get to another project.