Durban festivalgoers are eagerly awaiting the premiere of documentary “A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake” on July 20, as it brings with it a host of politicians, writers and activists.
Doc promises to be an unusual telling of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), a two-year public drama when apartheid’s victims and perpetrators came face to face in a court-like setting. The documentary follows the world tour of “Truth in Translation,” a play that dramatized the lives of TRC translators as they interpreted the stories told from the witness stand.
Workshopped in 2001 and mounted in Rwanda in 2004, the play has toured to the world’s war-torn regions – 26 cities on three continents. Where it goes, discussion follows, and tempers flare as horrors are revisited.
But on the warm Indian Ocean city of Durban the mood will no doubt be one of celebration as the production comes home, once again, albeit in a different medium.
This weekend’s gala premiere will be headed by Alex Boraine, deputy chairperson of the TRC, as well as veteran political commentator Max du Preez.
On July 21, Boraine will be joined by anti-apartheid activist and retired judge Albie Sachs, Ela Gandhi of the Gandhi Development Trust and actors from the theatrical production to address what it means to “move beyond cliches” two decades after the coming of democracy to South Africa.
Sachs himself is the subject of a documentary premiering at the Durban festival. “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the new South Africa,” directed by U.S. filmmaker Abbey Ginzberg, deals with Sachs’ impact on local politics and his humanistic outlook having survived a bomb attack that disabled him.
Both the play “Truth in Translation,” and the documentary that followed it, were directed by New York theater and film director Michael Lessac.
In the heat of celebration, it is easy to forget that even the TRC has had its detractors. Discussion has focused on the ease with which perpetrators of injustice sidestepped prison and on whether the format the TRC adopted in translating the horrors could adequately vocalize the pain people had suffered under apartheid.
At best, this weekend’s gathering will address these since time and distance may allow important individuals to reflect deeply on previously held positions.
But new formations in South Africa, like the Economic Freedom Fighters), that have gained popularity and parliamentary seats in the recent elections, could swing public opinion away from what is often regarded as the rainbow nation miracle.
These emerging political forces want nationalization of the powerful South African mining sector, as well as some guarantee that the issue of land ownership will be finitely resolved sometime in the near future.
“For me this film is the very antithesis of presenting the TRC as a reconciliation miracle,” said Lessac in an email. “Quite the contrary. Working with the cast it was clear at the outset that everyone saw very different, deep flaws in the TRC and disagreed about what they were.
“No one saw it as having been a miracle. The one thing we agreed upon was that it was important and gripping enough to make a theater production about.
“The issue of land is not unique to South Africa. The arguments put forward by the EFF are intertwined with complex issues around shame, denial, ownership, subjugation, humiliation and ancestral rights. This latter is what we tried to unpack in the film.”
The son of TRC deputy chairperson Boraine, an actor in the cast of Truth in Translation.
As the son of deputy translator Alex Boraine, actor Nic Boraine has a personal connection to the film. He has appeared in a number of high-profile local and international films (“District 9,” “Bang Bang Club”) will also appear in season four episodes of Showtime series “Homeland,” shot in Cape Town.
But Boriane is evolving. He and Lessac have established an office in New York from where they run a small organization called the Global Arts Corp. This is an attempt to take the methodology behind Truth in Translation and to “export” it to other conflict zones.
“We have hired an office manager and she drives it all on social media,” Boraine said.
“We are doing a production in Cambodia right now with a circus. They are a refugee circus that came out of Thailand, and we are working with them on a production about Pol Pot and genocide – starting a dialogue with grandparents who have kept quiet about it.”
Other productions have been made with Northern Irish actors, and in Kosovo, the Global Arts Corp. has created a work about that region’s conflict as “seen through the lens of the Roma. The Roma have buried bodies on both sides for 800 years,” Boraine said.
Boraine relates the lesson leaned on “A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake”: “What I realized with Michael’s process was that (for the TRC translators) it was very much about acting.
“Translators are very much like actors because they work in the first person. And they were playing both sides – they were playing victims in the afternoon and perpetrators in the morning. And that became an incredibly powerful way into my own world, as a human being, and as an actor.
“Suddenly this stuff that was going on around me – in my country, and what my father was doing – came into focus.
“When we traveled with the show I realized that it wasn’t necessarily just about South Africa, and my family, and the broader community. But it was about Serbians and Bosnians, and it was about the Northern Irish. It was the same stuff.
“I became quite interested in what the arts could bring…humor and music are universal languages that transcend barriers… I think that we all realized that reconciliation is not an event, it’s a process.”