Hot Docs 2014 | Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me

Posted by Aisha Jamal & filed under Film Festival, Hot Docs.

Nelson Mandela - The Myth and Me

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Directors: Khalo Matabane | South Africa/Germany | 2014 | Afrikaans, German, English, French


April 28 5:00 pm | Scotiabank Theatre

May 4  4:00 pm | Isabel Bader Theatre


Khalo Matabane’s Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me is a film you need to warm up to. The film’s starting premise of attempting to go behind the façade and iconic image of Nelson Mandela seems a bit trite but if you stick with the film, you find yourself eventually deeply involved in a whole host of other issues, including the reality of South Africa today, the failure of truth and reconciliation commissions, and why some are so angry at the thought of Mandela’s legacy.

Perhaps what starts the film off on a wrong note is the fictional letters that the filmmaker writes to Mandela (the film was shot before his death). At first these letters seem to rehearse the common love and adulation of Mandela and through them Matabane tries to compare his childhood visions of Mandela with the reality of the man who was quick to get angry and – gasp – could be moody. This is the least interesting part of the story and thankfully the film delves into more relevant topics from here on in.

One of the strengths of the film is that it tries to dispel the idea that Mandela represented the end of racism and inequality in South Africa. Matabane interviews disenchanted youth who feel like they should be able to theoretically become what they want in a ‘free’ South Africa but find themselves trapped in impoverished townships. A lingering problem is the issue of unequal ownership of arable land and natural resources. The end of apartheid did not herald a re-distribution of resources across the different social layers.

Through the character of Charity Kondile we also hear about one South African, who despite the urging of others, does not want to forget the wrongs done to her family during Apartheid. She insists she is just an “ordinary mother” who is still struggling with the idea of justice. Instead of participating in a truth and reconciliation commission and forgiving the police officers, who killed her son, she demands judicial procedures in court. This is indeed a controversial position, given that the Dalai Lama reminds us in the film that the “ultimate force to change people’s minds is love, forgiveness,” something that is easier said than done. The film makes this plenty clear with images of lynched, and tortured bodies and the sheer force of Kondile’s grief.

Some of the comparisons the film offers, such as shots of the recently erected Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany, don’t align well. The memorial is meant to function as a symbol of a nation that has addressed the wrongs of its past but in actuality it’s also become a symbol of a well-known controversy about the victors of a wronged past – the anti-graffiti substance used on the concrete memorial caused an uproar in Europe because it is made by a company that benefited greatly from the Holocaust by producing and supplying Zyclon-B to the gas chambers.

There are also a few polarizing interviews in the film. Matabane interviews well-known figures, such as the German president Joachim Gauck, controversial former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and strangely Colin Powell, a man whose involvement in the push for the Iraq war makes anything he says about justice and world peace questionable. The most redeeming aspects of Matabane’s film are the interviews with South Africans like Kondile and other intellectuals, activists, artists and ordinary citizens who have some real insights into the troubles of present day South Africa. In the end, Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me is a thought-provoking film about a country with a complex past and a difficult to predict future.


Aisha Jamal has a PhD in German Cinema from the University of Toronto. Currently she is teaching at Trent University and Sheridan College. Outside of talking, thinking and writing about film, she is also interested in food and books.

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