Bringing Mandela to life

2014-03-30 10:00

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Director of The 16th Man, Clifford Bestall, talks to Catie Monteiro about his movies, Morgan Freeman’s first-takes and the miraculous drop kick that changed our world in 1995.

Q: How did the idea for The 16th Man come about?

I first read the book titled Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, who was a friend and previous collaborator. The book was retitled Invictus to take opportunity from Clint Eastwood’s film.

Q: Where were you during the 1995 Rugby World Cup?

I was sitting white-knuckled at home with friends displaying outrageous behaviour as the game went through a number of breath-taking episodes. Actually, I became something of a danger to those sitting closest to me as my mirror neurons really kicked in.

I can frankly admit I was somewhat out of control.

Q: How did you feel when Nelson Mandela put on the Springbok cap?

I was shocked. There is something demeaning about grown men wearing schoolboy caps. I think the symbolism of humility was calculated. Mandela had a great sense of theatre, but I think that his wearing of the cap (not so much the jersey) could have flopped badly. Can you imagine what would have happened had the Springboks been demolished on the field of play, as they were expected to be?

Q: Other than Mandela, do you think people foresaw the kind of effect the game would have on South Africa?

Only in their dreams. Even the Springbok rugby players didn’t really think they had a chance, but like Mandela, they had a strategy which at best, if all went to plan, would stop them being completely humiliated on the field.

One part of the plan was to mark Jonah Lomu carefully and tackle him as hard as they could. That part nearly went pear-shaped when Lomu broke away early in the game and Pienaar and two others failed to stop him.

The other part of the plan was to play what had become the hallmark of Springbok rugby – to shut down the game by playing defensively. And that they did, which didn’t make for dazzling rugby with few dynamic field-crossing runs with the ball. If you extract the symbolic importance of the cup final and the fact that Madiba was part of the heady mix, it was a lousy game of rugby to watch.

Q: What was your favourite moment in the film?

There are a few. The rare archive of Mandela holding up the Springbok cap at a rally in KwaZulu-Natal and asking the crowd to support “your boys, our pride” was breathtaking. The obvious moment: Joel Stransky’s drop kick and the way we cut it with the interview I’d done with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

We edited it to make sure the ball took an eternity to go up over the posts as we intercut it with one of the Arch’s most blasphemous moments where he expected to see “the angels guide that ball through the goal posts”. They did and he was ecstatic. Mandela’s smile at the end of the game vies with the kick.

It was not just his usual handsome generous showing of perfect teeth. This was pure joy – a million kilowatt beam. They gave Morgan Freeman prosthetic teeth for that scene in Invictus so that his smile could simulate that of Madiba’s. It didn’t come close.

Q: What was the biggest stumbling block you faced in making the film?

Some would say that not getting an interview with Madiba was a limitation or a stumbling block, but during my career as both a cameraman and director, I’d been in on a number of interviews with him.

He was riveting when engaged in political discussion, entertaining with his gentle jokes but so self-effacing when talking about himself that it just didn’t work for me. He was 91 years old when we made the film. I had made a film of his 90th year for the BBC and judged that even then, he might not be up to it.

Q: There is great use of archival footage. Was it hard getting access to it?

Because I’d made a number of documentaries on Mandela for international broadcasters, I had already trawled through most of the archive. All the archive footage of the matches was licensed from the International Rugby Board in Ireland and was hugely expensive and nearly broke the budget. Gail Behrmann was the picture researcher who did an outstanding job.

Q: You managed to tell the story through the personal narratives of two extreme opposites, Koos Botha and Justice Bekebeke. Why did you end up choosing these people? How did you come to hear about Bekebeke’s story?

Justice Bekebeke was a central character in John Carlin’s book and was easy to track down. Initially, we were going to go with another character from the book, but research revealed that he had become a devout ANC member and someone so reconstructed and, may I add, loopy, we decided against him.

Koos was remorseful about the bomb he set off and was honest and humble – a very likeable character.

Q: When did you begin making political documentaries, and how did that end up becoming/ remaining your focus?

My first political documentary, in fact my first film ever, was Passing the Message, made in 1981. I made it with Michael Gavshon, who was more politically connected than I was at the time. Its subject was the independent trade union movement that was giving the apartheid government a real headache at the beginning of 1980s, the decade of change in South Africa. As opposition mounted, political change became my main but not exclusive focus.

Q: What kind of stories do you enjoy documenting?

I choose narrative documentaries with a clear arc. These are films about personal and social change. Right now, I am making a series of films that tell the stories of people involved in the remarkable interventions that are reducing the burden of diseases that have plagued humankind for millennia.

Q: What was it like working with Morgan Freeman?

The only need I had to work directly with Mr Freeman was to direct his voice-record. He took direction thoughtfully and was very professional, offering to do it all over again if I deemed he needed to. Most of the time his first take hit the mark – incredible really.

Q: Was the film made with the intention of working in conjunction with Invictus?

No, even though the producers, Revelations, produced both films. The sports channel ESPN wanted a documentary for their 30 of 30 series to celebrate the 30 most memorable sports events over their 30 years of broadcasting. They recruited the best American documentary filmmakers to make 29 of the films.

As luck would have it, the selected director for The 16th Man fell out with the producers and John Carlin suggested he pitch my name into the hat.

Fortunately for me, Freeman and his producer knew my work because he watched every documentary about Mandela that he could lay his hands on and I’d already made about five. So I arrived on the set of Invictus, met with Lori McCreary over tea and got the job 20 minutes later. Suddenly I was in with a crowd of people I’d been admiring from a distance for decades.

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