In 1963 South Africa, seven men were charged and put on trial for over 200 counts of sabotage with the intent to ‘ferment violent revolution’. Their names were: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and future president of the country Nelson Mandela. The trial was condemned by a branch of the United Nations and led to international sanctions.
The documentary The State Against Mandela and the Others is well aware that for many this trial is perhaps most famous for being the one that put Mandela in prison for nearly 30 years. Describing the rest of the group as ‘the others’ in its own title, the film is a tongue in cheek dig at this public knowledge, whilst also clearing a pathway to understanding who these other men were.
Directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte sit down with those who were accused, and still alive, to talk about their lives before they fought apartheid and their thoughts and feelings during the court case itself. Those no longer present are represented by family members, such as Winnie Mandela, who cast light on how the men’s actions reverberated through their wives and children. Their conversations are frank and often charming, with the men still possessing the same sharpness they displayed in court.
Rather than simply being a series of talking heads, however, The State Against Mandela and the Others uses the 256 hours of court recordings to tell the men’s story through animation. Through surprisingly clear audio, we hear every word, cough and gavel slam as the men come under the scrutiny of chief prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar. Faced with the death penalty, the seven men used their time on trial to highlight their cause and it’s clearly frustrating for Yutar as they weave around the questions hurled at them.
Often surreal in its depictions of its ‘cast members’ – Yutar is portrayed as a giant Bela Lugosi type who glides into frame – the animation allows the men’s words to run loose into landscapes made up of shapes and patterns as well as more traditional means of depicting the story. It all becomes rather hypnotic and yet, manages to both bolster and distract from the words spoken.
A shortcoming of the film arrives in the condensing of the court audio. Whilst there’s perhaps no call to hear every single second of the trial, there is a thought at the back of the mind that Champeaux and Porte’s approach to the Rivonia trial could be best suited as a mini-series, allowing the story and its protagonists a chance to breathe. Instead of hurtling – understandably due to time constraints – to the end. This is a mild criticism perhaps that’s more a testament to what is happening on screen and the desire to know more.
With a heavy subject given a light touch via animation, The State Against Mandela and the Others is an interesting take on an important chapter in apartheid history.