Filmmaker Pascale Lamche took on the enormous but important challenge of documenting Winnie Mandela’s story, a narrative, as she discovered, that was slightly skewed in the mind of many across the world. As she said to Filmmaker Magazine, the perception was that Winnie was a murderer, or at least a “fallen woman,” and that she could make it difficult for Lamche to have access to her. (Turned out that was wrong.) But “at a certain point I stopped talking and started making the film. The film tells the real story. It may surprise people.” The British-international filmmaker considers her resulting documentary Winnie a political thriller, really. The film, a Sundance Award-winner for World Cinema Documentary Directing, premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, February 5 at 10 pm [check local listings],
“Since her husband’s incarceration in 1964, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has been viewed as everything from an activist to an enemy in her native South Africa and around the globe, as Pascale Lamche’s thorough documentary details,” wrote Sarah Ward in ScreenDaily. “Above all else, Winnie is driven by its awareness of her role and reputation in history… densely-packed and informative documentary’s resonance originates, as it presents a string of highly publicised events from a different perspective.”
Lamche talked to us about making this sweeping film about the enigmatic South African activist, some of the most shocking revelations within, and how we can use the film to start conversations about apartheid, racism, and the search for the truth.
What led you to want to make a film about Winnie Mandela?
This was a long cherished dream, ever since I first interviewed Nelson Mandela in 2002. He was the “Saint,” she was portrayed as the Sinner Lady (to take up a title from a magnificent album by Charlie Mingus). She was a mystery, had wielded enormous power and respect during the years of bitter struggle against apartheid; had fearlessly kept Nelson Mandela’s name alive, both inside and outside the country and then suddenly, inexplicably, ‘went bad’, if the prevailing narrative was to be believed.
But this demonized vision of her, so widely spread in the Western world, did not jibe with the love and respect with which she was still held amongst the majority of black communities inside South Africa. My collaborator, the Sowetan intellectual Peter Makurube, worked hard to persuade me that the film to be made on the struggle against Apartheid and the transition to Democracy, in order to unlock the keys to the country’s current travails, was not yet another tribute to Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo or even a portrait of Thabo Mbeki, but would be a no holds barred investigation into the real story of Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
Who do you hope Winnie can impact the most?
Everyone! Young and old. All those who have heard of Nelson Mandela and the courageous struggle of his people against a brutal White Supremacist regime that, for business reasons, was propped up by the United States, Britain, and other European countries. To all who understand that to have waited until 1994 to hold the first Democratic elections in which Black people could vote in their own country is an indescribable injustice that was tolerated for an indecently long time, right up to almost the close of the 20th Century.
And particularly all those who have believed that Winnie Mandela was an evil woman, a witch undermining a Saint, to be metaphorically burnt at the stake. The truth is always more complex.
But, of course, the film also speaks particularly to women who thirst for rare stories of major female political figures (and will encounter a story of how easily such figures can be discredited and publicly humiliated in societies that remain, essentially, patriarchal). And also to the Black community, who know very well how radical Black leaders have been taken down throughout history.
Given both the subject matter, the history, and having to use so much amazing archival footage, you must have had a lot of challenges in making this. What were some of those?
Firstly, to persuade potential financiers and certain established broadcasters that a film on such a maligned figure should be made at all. Then, of course, gaining access to Winnie Madikizela Mandela. Then [access] to members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, who have been unwilling to speak openly before. And finally, tracking down and persuading directors and agents of the South African apartheid-era state services (Intelligence and Police) to reveal their secrets.
How did you get Winnie and her family to participate and to trust you?
It was a long process, begun with former partner Peter Makurube, a Sowetan intellectual of some renown, who knew Zindzi Mandela, Winnie’s daughter. Zindzi was of particular significance as she’d shared most of her mother’s life during the struggle in both Soweto and internal exile in Brandfort. I first had to win the confidence of Zindzi, who then introduced me to her mother. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, when asked why she trusted me, Winnie replied, “you just have to spend half an hour with Pascale, and you know!”
Was there anything you had to cut out for time that you really wish you didn’t?
I was sorry not to be able to find space for some really funny anecdotes by various members of MK- Winnie’s guerillas – like Hotstix Mabusa, the famous SA pop star who revealed to me he carried arms hidden in his amplifiers – and when stopped by a police roadblock en route to Cape Town, warned them this was Jimi Hendrix’s amp and it would blow their heads off.
On a darker note: a whole complex story involving child abuse relating to the Church, some of whose key representatives played a central role in the campaign to besmirch Winnie. And also, I would have liked to reveal more extraordinary material, revealed to me for the first time in history, about Jerry Richardson, the police spy who killed Stompie Moeketsi/Sepei.
Is there one scene or moment you consider key to the whole film, or that sticks with you the most?
Yes, when Zindzi Mandela describes her parents as they return to their home in Soweto, together, just after Nelson’s release in 1990. This is the key to the film.
“When people on the ground know who their leaders are there’s nothing that you can do successfully to alter that relationship because that is genuine and that is real and that is historically strong- I think they were too formidable- I think together as a couple they were just too powerful- as a couple – because these people who are so influential – within their communities and beyond- they have impacted and they’re together- and they had this ability to see things from two different perspectives but wanting the same thing- for the same objective. I just think it was too much power to have as a couple and I think there were various people who felt threatened by this and for anybody who had an agenda – they had to get rid of this, they had to get rid of this solid foundation first, and then proceed.”
What were some of the things you learned while making the film that surprised or shocked you the most?
When I was interviewing Vic Mc Pherson, the director of the shadowy operation (psychological warfare) set up under the apartheid President PW Botha towards the end of their rule, he told me a terrifying story. He said he was responsible for sending the letter bomb that killed Ruth First. He giggled with delight at the memory, “of course it was meant for her husband!” he said. I recorded it on my iPhone as the crew had packed away. This revealed the mystery behind the movie A World Apart, in which Barbara Hershey played Ruth First.
Also, when the policeman, Henk Heslinga, told me the police spy (Jerry Richardson) who killed Stompie to cover his own tracks, was paid for his duties to the apartheid state against Winnie’s underground guerilla network, after the fall of apartheid, during Nelson Mandela’s presidency. This was another shocking revelation.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Wanda by Barbara Loden, The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda, Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, Camp de Thiaroye by Ousmane Sembene, Black Narcissus by Powell and Pressburger, Pop Goes the Easel by Ken Russell.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
I’m working on a number of projects, including an animated documentary, a personal film, and nurturing a dream to make a film about the musical genius Alice Coltrane, whose fabulous track, “Journey in Satchidananda” opens Winnie.
Can you update us on Winnie herself since you made the film? And how has the film impacted South Africa?
Simply that the South African press have said the film has changed history. The narrative frame on the Mandela story has shifted. Meanwhile, Winnie, as Member of Parliament and veteran ANC leader, continues to advocate change both within the party and the country as a whole. Recently, she advocated a Million Woman’s March through South Africa, against poverty, inequality, and violence against women and children.