African Cinema: The bloody?spectacle

2014-05-25 15:00

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Miners Shot Down is the first local documentary to open on circuit in a while. This may have something to do with the shock of Marikana and the multitude of African stories to tell. Percy Mabandu reviews the doccie

The broadcasts came clattering across our TV screens in real time. Seventeen striking mine workers mowed down by police bullets.

Details of the event have been blurred in our sense of sickening awe and the hysteria of national outrage.

The facts of that fateful day have been further muddled by political spin offered by police blaming the protesters, mining company Lonmin denying responsibility and the competing trade unions accusing other role players of a murderous collusion.

A commission of inquiry set up by President Jacob Zuma to probe the 2012 shootings is often dogged by controversy.

Now Miners Shot Down, a new documentary by Rehad Desai, picks through this clutter to illuminate the conflict at Marikana in which 34 people died and at least 78 were wounded on that day. It is, in a sense, a filmic commission of inquiry.

It brings together footage culled from Lonmin security cameras, police videos, TV news crews and the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, and intersperses it with new interviews.

Desai works with a simple but powerful modus operandi to construct his 84-minute documentary. He simply arranges footage from his various sources in an ordered ­sequence to create a logical, linear timeline of events.

It begins on Friday, August 10, before the infamous shooting, when the miners march to the Lonmin offices on their own, annoyed by their union’s apparent lack of action.

Desai’s film follows the events at Marikana through the six days that lead up to August?16. His footage is accompanied by a sombre narrator’s voice that puts the visuals in context and delivers calm accusations.

Aesthetically, Desai’s picture is also frank and unpretentious. He directs the pitiful facts and bloodyspectacle of his story with a refreshingly candid temperament.

Though on the surface it appears to be an unmediated projection of facts, the director’s hand is apparent as the story unfolds. But to me, it is a welcome, trusty hand, like that of a surgeon on a scalpel.

Miners Shot Down manages to shore up a litany of emails that circulated between multiple power players who played a role in determining the fate of the striking miners. They include names like Nathi Mthethwa, Susan Shabangu, Riah Phiyega and Zukiswa Mbombo. At the centre of the emails is Cyril Ramaphosa, a nonexecutive director and shareholder at Lonmin.

Desai’s film places a critical focus on Ramaphosa, a likely future president of the country. The story sees him coming full circle. The old labour activist with socialist inclinations is now a shareholder and speaks with the voice of mine bosses.

Apart from file footage of him in the mid-1980s and as Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man in the transition years, Ramaphosa is one of Miners Shot Down’s most prominent talking heads. His voice, even where he refuses to answer questions, lends an ­uncomfortable air of authority to the film.

The prominent role players and chilling facts of the Marikana story are fast making this one of the most important documentaries to come out of South Africa in recent years. It is doing well on the international festival circuit, too.

The usefulness of Desai’s film is its ability to sift through the frenzy of news reportage and social-media spectacle to take a new look at a tragedy.

At the same time, it is an act of activism – an attempt to provide a document to counter the state’s dominant narrative.

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