Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Dara Kell is the co-director and producer of the documentary film Dear Mandela. This film follows three youth leaders in a popular movement within the slums of South Africa against a government policy that would force residents to leave their dwellings. It has been shown at many independent film festivals to critical acclaim. The Daily Gazette spoke with with Kell via phone. Below, she talks about the movement, her experience making the film, and the importance of social activism.
Zoë Cina-Sklar: How would you describe the film in your own words?
Dara Kell: Dear Mandela is the story about a social movement in South Africa called Abahlali BaseMjondolo. [It] started in 2005, and the aim of the movement is to represent the interests of the people who live in the shantytowns in South Africa. So for three years we followed three young people who are leaders of the movement. We focused on a new law called the Slum Act. It affects shack-dwellers. The government started a new program that started evicting people from their homes and moving them far outside of the city. The Abahlali BaseMjondolo movement tried to get the Slum Act scrubbed from the book [of law]. So we followed them and they took the government to court, and they took the case all the way to the constitutional court, our version of the Supreme Court. [The film] also follows the daily lives of the young people who are living in shacks, and [tries] to understand more where South Africa is now in the post-apartheid generation. All the people that we followed are part of what we call the Born Free generation.
ZCS: What makes this film distinct from other documentaries that also are looking at social movements?
DK: I think what we tried to do was not have any experts talking. We tried to tell the story through a very vague [lens]…and just have the action unfold. We really tried to have it as a direct journey of discovery. So there’s no narration, not very many interviews. We tried to have the characters tell the story in their own words.
ZCS: How does that flow? Without interviews or narration, what is the format of the film?
DK: It’s cinema verite. So as the story unfolds, the narrative told is the constitutional court case. We followed them and [went] to the constitutional court, and at the end you hear the decision. It’s just kind of delving into their lives and also understanding the movement that they’re a part of, and there are all sorts of events that we didn’t perceive at the beginning. The movement came under very harsh attacks from the government as well, and you’ll see that in the film. The government hired an armed mob to search for the leaders of the movement and tried to kill them to punish their shack. So in south Africa, on the surface, it seems like a very democratic country, with respect to freedom of speech and freedom of association—all the really hard won freedoms that were fought for—more and more there’s repression of activists and human rights defenders.
ZCS: What was it like being involved with these young people who were dealing with government intervention and danger? What was that like as a filmmaker?
DK: It was very scary. We were [there] when the armed mob came in search of the leaders. I grew up during apartheid and wasn’t really allowed to see this other world that was intentionally hidden from us. I went to a segregated school and lived in a suburb. I was only 14 when the first democratic elections happened, and Mandela became president. We didn’t learn any real history in school. South Africa is very divided still but I think it’s very hard to know what’s really going on unless you actually make an attempt to cross over these invisible boundaries. It’s very easy for people in South Africa and everywhere to ignore what’s going on just around the corner.
ZCS: You said that you felt that you were born to make this film. Was there a particular moment in which you made that realization or was it more of an ongoing sort of realization?
DK: I think it was more of an ongoing journey. As we kept on filming and going deeper and deeper into the story and realizing more and more what was at stake, it wasn’t just about this group of people trying to stop these evictions in Durban and trying to get the government to give them the houses they’d been promised, it was also about democracy and what it means to vote. For me it became a deep and important thing to try to communicate what the Abahlali BaseMjondolo movement vision is. It relates a lot to what’s going on here [in the United States], with a lot of people being homeless, and the thousands and thousands of homes that are empty. It definitely relates to the healthcare situation here where people don’t have the very basics that they need. The conversation becomes more about how these people think they’re entitled, how they haven’t worked and how they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. I think that mindset is very prevalent in the United States and around the world. In an administration where there’s a lot of unemployment and there aren’t enough jobs for people, I think that the government does have a responsibility to care for the most vulnerable citizens. It’s a big issue.
ZCS: Would you say that there’s one thing you learned overall from the experience of making the movie that will be with you in the most poignant way for the rest of your life. What was most surprising for you?
DK: In the film you see that that the Abahlali BaseMjondolo movement took the government to court, and that they went all the way to the constitutional court to take this case. And the fact that they won their case was really amazing; that was a really special moment. And a couple things stood out. When the attacks happened, that was right before the constitutional court’s decision came out. And then we were hanging around waiting for the decision to come down when … the armed group attacked. At that point we didn’t know if the movement would survive. We thought, okay there are enough death threats and people were scared. In the film you see that they thought this could destroy our movement, okay, we’ll try to survive. I think the most surprising or amazing thing was that it did survive and it actually grew stronger. The government comes down with a very heavy hand and tries to teach them a lesson. The fact that they survived is a testament to their courage and that the movement continued to grow shows the legitimacy of numbers that they gained in South Africa.
ZCS: It sounds like a really remarkable story. Is there something in particular that you hope people will take away from viewing your film?
DK: I’m hoping that people will see the need for organizing and the need for unity to counteract the culture of individualism that’s so rife in America. The idea that while I’m okay and I’m a little bit better off on money for people to see that even if they’re not okay, they’re connected to their neighbor. The South African idea of Ubuntu is something that’s very powerful and something that we tried to we tried to weave in a subtle way into our film—that idea that unity is important, [that] I am only who I am because of you, that feeling of connectedness.It’s really, really hard to work together, and no one’s sugar coating it, but it’s absolutely essential to have that mass of power in numbers. That [the] 99% has to be united as the 1% are. So I hope that people get that.
ZCS: Thank you so much for speaking with me, and I really look forward to seeing your film.
DK: I looking forward to meeting you. Take care.
Dear Mandela will be screened at Swarthmore today, October 26, at 7:00pm in Science Center 199 and will be followed by a Q&A with Kell.
Photos courtesy of dearmandela.com.