The last three words in the title of “The State Against Mandela and the Others” make an apparent afterthought of the nine men tried alongside Nelson Mandela for crimes against the apartheid state in the landmark Rivonia Trial of 1963-64. Even in the opening credits, they appear after a lag, as if to say, “Oh, and those guys too.” Directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte are quite aware that they’re reflecting general public awareness with this tongue-in-cheek sidelining, for their absorbing, surprisingly inventive documentary account of the trial makes these “others” its heroic stars. Weaving the reflections of those still alive into an artful fusion of recently excavated archive audio and atmospheric interpretive animation, the film brings emotive, enlightening perspective to a case that may be most famous for putting Mandela in prison for 27 years, but ruptured many other lives besides.
That said, ongoing international fascination with Mandela’s life and legacy provides the marketing hook for a film sure to catch the attention of documentary distributors and programmers following its out-of-competition Cannes premiere. Even viewers scarcely familiar with the historical specifics here should be reeled in by Champeaux and Porte’s high-style legal-drama fashioning of the facts, thanks to the extensiveness and stunning clarity of the trial recordings — selected from 256 hours of remastered material — and the characterful fluency of the charcoal-style animation by mononymous Parisian artist Oerd. His elegant, frequently witty cartoons play as monochrome courtroom sketches filtered through a Kafkaesque nightmare, lending cinematic distinction and cohesion to what would otherwise be a standard talking-heads affair.
Of those heads, the recently late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela will be most familiar to international audiences, as she speaks with passion on the baton of activist responsibility passed by her ex-husband’s imprisonment, and the origins of the African National Congress’s “amandla” rallying cry. But it’s the generous contributions of Mandela’s fellow accused Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni, along with their lawyers George Bizos and Joel Joffe, that give this film its storytelling heft and emotional kick.
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Goldberg, Kathrada and Mlangeni followed very different paths to joining the ANC and Mandela’s campaign of growingly radical resistance to the government’s white-power regime. Recounted with humor, some sorrow and persistent defiance, their individual narratives, braided in with those of the accused who weren’t alive to participate, add welcome nuance and detail to the bigger, more familiar picture of ideologies at war. There’s even a throat-catching love story amid the talk of revolution and sabotage, as Indian Muslim Kathrada (filmed not long before his death in 2017) and his white former fiancee Sylvia Neame movingly remember a relationship that was already under pressure in apartheid-era South Africa before Kathrada’s prison sentence forced its end. Neame’s reading of Kathrada’s final letter to her before his imprisonment is quietly devastating — a reminder of the personal as well as the political cost of resistance.
Of course, it’s the trial itself that yields the most rousing passages here — which is apt, given that Mandela and his comrades intended from the beginning not to fight for their lives in the face of a death penalty they fully expected, but to use the courtroom as a theatrical platform for their uncowed, unrepentant movement. The most enduring historical soundbite from the trial, Mandela’s “an ideal for which I am prepared to die” speech, is given full, rich context in the film, but less famed nuggets are brought just as powerfully to the fore: Perhaps the most riveting audio find here is the testimony of Mandela’s dedicated right-hand man Walter Sisulu, a typically mild-mannered figure gradually prodded into seething, righteous fury (“I wish you were in the position of an African”) under the questioning of hawkish state prosecutor Percy Yutar — a figure given grandly villainous stature in Oerd’s exaggerated drawings, the sweeping black sleeves of his robe alone often dwarfing the accused in the dock.
Even Yutar, a brilliant legal mind put to dubious purposes in the Rivonia Trial, is given a compellingly fleshed-out characterization, as his liberal son David reflects on the conflicted role his Jewishness played in the proceedings: Was his appointment as attorney-general an attempt by pro-Nazi leaders of the ruling National Party to put a more progressive spin on their white supremacy? “The State Against Mandela and the Others” outlines a complex network of motives and tensions underpinning this single sensational trial: Nothing here is exactly revelatory to those with a working knowledge of apartheid history, but few documentaries have gathered the stakes involved in the trial quite so deftly.
Assorted archive materials color in the sheer scale of social division and oppression in South Africa at the time, some more pertinently than others: A vintage newsreel putting a positive propagandist spin on the purging of black residents from Johannesburg’s Sophiatown district is startling even when you know the lay of the land, though a 1950s tourist promo for the seaside city of Durban drifts a little far from the topic at hand, its galling casual racism notwithstanding. At any rate, such horrific reminders merely pave the way for the feelgood surge of the film’s contemporary finale, as the surviving Rivonia Trial ensemble gathers at one member’s house for a joyful, wistful reunion, in a free country that seemed all but unimaginable 55 years ago. That every man convicted lived to see this change, after a trial expected to condemn them to death, is the happiest of bittersweet endings: As Goldberg recalls, delivering news of his sentence to his aged mother, “It’s life, and life is wonderful.”