Friday March 9, 2001
South Africa formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu, to investigate rather than to bury the crimes of apartheid. In their remarkably revealing, Oscar-nominated documentary "Long Night's Journey Into Day," filmmakers Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann cover four cases over a two-year period.
They record astonishing moments of forgiveness as well as instances of unrelenting bitterness, yet the viewer comes away convinced that the attempt to get at the truth, which involves confrontation between assailants and victims, does indeed have a healing power. The commission, which has heard more than 7,000 applicants requesting amnesty, is playing a crucial role in securing South Africa's future. There is, however, an inescapable irony in the commission's work: 80% of the people wanting amnesty are black.
The first case is by far the best known in America. In 1993 Stanford student Amy Biehl, who had gone to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship to fight apartheid, was stoned, stabbed and beaten to death by four young black men during an uprising in the township of Guguletu outside Cape Town. Reid and Hoffmann focus on one of them, Mongezi Manquina, as he appears before the commission with Biehl's parents and his own family present.
In asking forgiveness he says, "I had seen her as simply another white oppressor." From the start his mother, Evelyn, had felt deeply for the Biehls' loss, and now four years later the Biehls feel the best way to honor their daughter's memory is to support Manquina's appeal for amnesty. Later the Biehls visit his mother--Manquina is not present--in an emotionally charged meeting.
No such moment comes for Robert McBride, an anti-apartheid activist of mixed race who joined the African National Congress' military division, and Sharon Weigemoed, whose sister was one of three women killed in a Durban bar frequented by the white military when McBride set off a car bomb. He says he instantly regretted his action and needs to feel healed, and he is persuasive. He points out to the commission that he served more time in prison for his act than any apartheid-era government official. Weigemoed, who has long lived in a luxurious whites-only community but claims she has never supported apartheid, remains bitter, unable to understand McBride's motivations.
Widows of two anti-apartheid activists do understand why Eric Taylor, a white former security forces officer who participated in the murders of the "Cradock 4," would seek forgiveness. The women want to hear what he has to say in his confession, but they forthrightly state that they see no reason they should be moved to forgive him for the pain and loss he caused.
The final and most dramatic case involves Thapelo Mbelo, a young black police officer ordered to infiltrate and instigate anti-apartheid activists in the same township where Amy Biehl met her death eight years later. Mbelo was one of more than 25 police officers involved in the fatal ambush of the "Guguletu 7." Weapons were planted on them so they could be portrayed to the media as terrorists who needed to be put down. (The only other applicant in that case, the white Sgt. Bellican, seeks amnesty without confession of guilt or expression of remorse.) Not only does Mbelo appear before the commission but also has a subsequent face-to-face meeting with the mothers of the seven victims. As they talk, one mother steps forward in an act of forgiveness, eager for healing herself and deciding to let God judge Mbelo.
All the events are presented by the filmmakers straightforwardly and appropriately unadorned, accompanied by archival footage and interviews with many individuals involved on both sides of the cases. "Long Night's Journey into Day," which took the grand jury prize at Sundance last year, is not merely affecting and illuminating; it concludes on a note of hope.
Long Night's Journey into Day, 2001. Unrated. A Seventh Art Releasing presentation. Directors Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann. Produced by Reid and edited by Hoffmann. Camera Ezra Jwili and Reid. Music Lebo M. In English, Xhosa and Afrikaans, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.