Remembering Mapantsula

2013-10-22 10:00

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The iconic film about the struggle life turns 25

On this day in 1988, the classic film Mapantsula was first released in SA. This is if the internet is to be believed.

What is certain is that this year marks its 25th anniversary. Mapantsula went to the Cannes Film Festival in May 1988, to a massive reception.

It was South African film maker Oliver Schmitz’s first film and he was surprised by its success, he told me recently during a Skype conversation from his home in Germany.

“I had a gut feeling that this was an important thing to do, but I never thought about it being in Cannes and everyone talking about it,” he said.

After that screening, it was sold to 53 nations, says Schmitz, who has made more films since then, among them the acclaimed Life Above All in 2010.

Mapantsula was powerful, of course, because it was an anti-apartheid film with very strong black consciousness themes. It’s about the political awakening of Panic, played by Thomas Mogotlane, who was also the film’s co-writer.

Panic is a small-time gangster in Joburg, with little concern for anyone but himself.

The film occurs in flashbacks while Panic is in the infamous John Vorster Square prison in Joburg.

He happens to be sharing a cell with a group of United Democratic Front members. Knowing him to be an informer in times like these, the police single him out, hoping he can give them incriminating information about the activists.

But it’s the late 80s: the townships are in turmoil, police are arresting and murdering people, including the young boy of Panic’s landlady, Ma Modise.

In prison, Panic is interrogated, threatened with death and humiliated, which pushes him to choose a side.

Core to the film is the choice between right and wrong. “It’s the story of somebody who is not political who became political, in this case, a street thug or gangster,” says Schmitz.

“And what it would take to push him that far that he would sacrifice himself for others.”

In the same way, it’s the story of the domestic worker, Pat (Thembi Mtshali), who stands up to the madam and her boyfriend.Ma Modise (Dolly Rathebe), who represents the older generation afraid to rock the boat, is eventually pushed to action when she loses a child.

For me, the film has always been about the everyman, the people who will not get into the history books and the documentaries on who’s backs, many have argued, our political democracy actually stands.

The film sparked the debate, says Schmitz, about where the core of the revolutionary movement was: in exile or in South Africa itself?

That debate seemed to die down after 1994 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when we all accepted that there was not enough room in the global consciousness for more than one hero.

“The lead character is not a hero, not a romanticised human being, he’s not glamorised. It was very important to show a film from that perspective for me,” says Schmitz.

I first saw Mapantsula in high school. It made a strong impression on me for the same reasons. I have been thinking a lot about it lately, especially around the time of of Nelson Mandela’s illness and knowing that his death will forever embalm his struggle hero status.

When I realised Mapantsula was nearing its 25-year milestone, I wanted to see it again. I found that the themes were just as strong as before.

So were the richness of the characters and the everyday details of township life in the 80s. I was touched again by the powerful subtleties in Mogotlane’s performance.

“It’s the unsaid,” as Schmitz calls it, “what’s hanging in the air, the whole mood, emotion and atmosphere at the time”.

You realise that even this brash gangster, who brandishes his switchblade at white people in broad daylight, is just a man in fear, raging against a life he knows is not fully in his control.

Even this man’s revolt is important to the broader struggle.

As the history of SA is being scripted, we’ve accepted with little fight that it can only be told in tidy stories of villains and heroes, sometimes because of the demands of an international audience seeking film- and book-ready stories.

For some among us,Mandela is the convenient figure we can use to hide the truth of our allegiances pre-1994.

Watch this film again because it will remind you of the everyday people of the apartheid struggle – your parents, maybe not as courageous as the men in the books, but who nonetheless staged their own little revolts.

The mother who used whatever money she had to send you to a better school or the grandmothers who brewed illegal beer to make ends meet at home.

My father, maybe not brave, said to me conspiratorially in primary school: “Only learn what they tell you in history class so you can pass your exams, but then forget it afterwards.”

I’m not saying get everyone into the history books. We hardly have the patience to keep public holidays meaningful, and heroes and villains make

for better Hollywood fare.

But please, let’s not forget. Mapantsula is that reminder for me.

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