Thursday, February 5, 2015

Apartheid's end as seen from the opposite side: Nicolas Rossier's doc, THE OTHER MAN, opens

If, after the death of this most important African leader, you as did I began to feel overcome with the growing amount of Mandel-iana -- movies, documentaries, magazine articles, television shows and what not -- I can recommend a new documentary that opens this week and covers a fellow whom many of us Americans probably saw as the adversary of Nelson Mandela: former South African President, F.W. de Klerk. Titled THE OTHER MAN : F.W. de Klerk and the End of Apartheid and directed by Nicolas Rossier (shown below, who gave us the excellent doc, American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein), this new film might have you initially thinking that it will be some kind of whitewash of de Klerk. Not on your life.

Neither is the documentary a condemnation. Rather, it's a very interesting look at a man who would dearly and clearly like to be remembered as some sort of savior of South Africa, but is more likely to be thought of as the white South African at the top of the power chain who at least had the sense to do what had to be done to avoid an oncoming bloodbath. Frederik Willem De Klerk's family history goes back to the British vs the Dutch South Africans, and as the former President, pictured below, tells it, the preferable phrase is not "apartheid" but "separate development" to describe the condition affecting South African blacks under white rule during that prolonged era. (Yes, the phrase does remind one somewhat of our own country southern style "separate but equal" nonsense.)

Under this "separate development," de Klerk likes to remind us, "there was a big improvement of the physical lot of black people in South Africa." Yes, and also torture, imprisonment, massacres and the like. He also says -- and often reminds us that he said it -- "I've come to the conclusion the apartheid was wrong." Hallelujah.

We learn of the man's history, and of the influence of his older and more liberal brother, as well as his much more conservative first wife. During the course of the film, we are also reminded of our own President Reagan's pro-apartheid stance, and the Republican-controlled congress that actually over-rode Reagan's veto on the matter because American public opinion back then was so strongly anti-apartheid. (Can you remotely imagine our Republican-controlled congress doing anything like this today?)

The man is given credit for doing the right thing, even in the face of the possibility of his own security agency and military joining with the far-right wing. At the end of the day, he did have the guts to call the kind of shots -- freeing purely political prisoners, member of the Communist Party and the ANC -- that many members of the white South African establishment could not abide. At the same time that all this was going on, the world was watching what was happening in Angola, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and soon after, if piece-meal, the fall of the Communist block itself.

The documentary shows us much of the violence that occurred, post apartheid; as the film makes clear, some whites and some blacks preferred violence over change. During that change, de Klerk and Mandela became partners -- if uncomfortable partners. In 1993, the pair was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (below). Many of the us recall Mandela's receiving it, fewer remember de Klerk's award.

Once the movie gets into certain individual stories of the recipients of violence -- the mother of a particular black woman (below), the blinding and bombing of a priest -- it goes a bit off-target because these individu-als, despite their loss, simply are not to the point of this film in the way that its leaders were and are. Finally, the documentary comes down to a question (regarding de Klerk's knowledge of the many assassinations and massacres that took place) that many Americans will remember from our own Nixon/Watergate years: What did he know and when did he know it?

It seems safe to say that de Klerk simply did not want to know and so lets himself off the hook too easily. Finally a comparison is made between this South African leader and Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev. The comparison is in some ways pretty apt, but hearing de Klerk point out where it goes off course is both funny and ridiculous. Whatever else he might be, the fellow has a mile-wide streak of egotistical narcissism.

From First Run Features and lasting just 76 minutes, The Other Man, a South Africa/USA co-production, has its New York theatrical premiere this Friday, February 6, at the Quad Cinema. Other playdates? None are listed yet, but being from FRF, the film will surely have a DVD release at some future date.

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