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The Making Of

Director/producer Jihan El-Tahri talks about political turmoil, canceled interviews, and the film’s seven-hour first cut.

Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?

Jihan El-Tahri: I want people to understand the complexity and the process taking place in South Africa rather than simply judging it.

IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

JET: Making a film about current history is difficult because the goal posts are constantly shifting. When I started filming BEHIND THE RAINBOW in 2004, South Africa was at the beginning of the process of a transformation, and no major scandals had erupted yet. So I was lucky to be able to film some events and get to know the people better. But a year later the country was in deep political turmoil and everyone just shut me out. For six months before Polokwane, every scheduled interview was cancelled — usually the same morning. Putting aside the frustration and doubt that I could ever get the film done, imagine the implications for the budget!

IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

JET: I took my time to talk to them long before we started filming. We did research interviews and kept a dialogue going before we brought in the cameras. So, when they decided to break the silence, most of them spoke more than I had expected them to.

IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

JET: The first cut was seven hours! This was the story as it was told to me. Sticking to one narrative made me decide what to keep in and what to leave out. There were events that mattered internally, but were too complex for an international audience. Also the time constraint meant I had to cut out scenes that were touching, but didn’t push the film along — for example, Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.

IL: Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

JET: Understanding the implications of the Sunset Clauses was a learning curve for me. Also, what happened in Polokwane, which was an amazing and democratic process that I lived through and I was amazed that all the tension did not degenerate into violence.

IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

JET: Amazingly well. Almost everyone who participated in the film has received it positively. The political scene is divided into three camps; some individuals in each camp feel uncomfortable, but all acknowledge the accuracy and importance of the film.

IL: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

JET: Public TV reaches a wide and diverse audience. Part of the reason is to debate and say this is how I see the world. It is not only about getting it out to an audience; it is also about who watches it, which is important. It allows for reflection.

IL: What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

JET: There were at least two key people on my interview wish list who never gave me the promised filmed interview: Trevor Manuel and Joel Netshitenzhe, both key characters and both very close to Mbeki. I did research interviews with both and met them repeatedly, but when it came to the crunch they remained silent. I was very disappointed because having them in the film would have made a difference in the tone. I also believe we would have gotten a more nuanced image of Thabo Mbeki. I tried long and hard!

IL: What were the specific challenges in making BEHIND THE RAINBOW?

JET: After making films about Cuba and Saudi Arabia I thought South Africa would be a piece of cake. However, it turned out to be the most difficult film I have ever made. History was being made as we filmed and the story kept shifting under my feet. For six months political tensions were so rife that no one wanted to speak to me. Everyone cancelled interviews and it came to a point where we didn’t know if we could continue making the film. But, with the support of the producer, we did continue. So, I guess tenacity and perseverance are the positive sides of obsession.

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