Danish director Bille August never had personal ties to South Africa, but he remembers what a “powerful force” Nelson Mandela was throughout the 1980s.
“Among everything that was happening in international politics, Mandela stood out like a blazing light,” he recalls.
So when the project “Goodbye Bafana” came his way, August accepted promptly.
“Because South Africa is a foreign country for me, I wanted to be objective, and to stick to the facts,” he says. “The last thing I wanted was to make a sentimental biopic of Nelson Mandela. That would have been unbearable.”
August is renowned for skilled, intricate character portrayals (he won his second Palme D’Or in Cannes for a biopic of Ingmar Bergman in 1992) but in this latest, his brushtrokes are broad and bold.
The film is based on Gregory’s memoirs about his days as Mandela’s prison warder, but August says he was careful to “avoid certain parts that we thought were exaggerated or that later became the focus of controversy.”
After the book came out, Mandela reputedly denied giving permission for its publication, but August says it wasn’t as cut and dried as that.
Were you comfortable about adapting a memoir that Mandela didn’t approve of?
The real story is that Mandela was upset that Gregory published some of his personal correspondence during imprisonment.
Mandela rightly felt that Gregory had no right to print what were personal letters to his wife and children. The rest of the book is Gregory’s own experiences, and with this Mandela had no problem.
What are your own thoughts of Gregory’s book?
It’s very clear, both from the book and from Mandela’s subsequent reaction to it, that Mandela meant a great deal in Gregory’s life, but that this wasn’t mutual.
They may have bonded in the way Gregory described, but ultimately there’s a good measure of hero worship at work there.
What fascinated you about Gregory?
He went from being a close-minded, somewhat ignorant man who only wanted a better life for himself and his family, to someone who would jeopardize his career and social position for a political conviction.
For an Afrikaner in the 1970s, that volte-face must have been an enormous conversion and a decision that required tremendous courage.
When he made that decision his friends became enemies overnight, his family was ostracized, his social credibility was destroyed. It seems natural that, having paid that price for his relationship with Mandela, he would want to make it a life project.
You spent six months in South Africa researching apartheid before shooting the movie.
It was necessary for me to understand the climate of racism because it’s so alien to me. I’ve never grown up with that, it’s never been a part of my life. You know, they still air programs about Reconciliation on TV. I saw his program where white policemen confess what they did to blacks in front of the camera. It was heart-breaking and terrible, but I could see that it was a huge relief for them to be able to do this, to have that outlet and move on from the nightmare.
Would you describe yourself as a political-minded director?
I feel that art and culture comprise a place that’s at the opposite of politics. So I can’t see myself making movies and being politically-minded as well. My mind doesn’t work like that.
But the good thing about filmmaking is that we can give heart and soul — and a story — to political issues. It’s my job as a movie-maker to tell a political story in a cinematic language, to pump some blood in it and give it warmth.