Acting the Truth

by Linda Bamber

Feature image: Circle of Giuseppe Cesari, called Il Cavalier d’Arpino. Angel Playing a Flute, 1580. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Angels

Beautiful slim girls dressed in gauzy white, hands touching, dancing around an invisible Maypole. High voices singing. The girls themselves are not to blame for their performance of perfect white womanhood; but what a handy excuse for all kinds of racist bullshit.

Cut to a man in the audience, watching. He has been gifted with every gene there is for male beauty, but by this point in Long Night’s Journey Into Day (2001) his expressionless face looks nothing short of criminally stupid. He is one of the Boer policemen who murdered four anti-apartheid activists in the rural town of Cradock, South Africa. Then he poured gasoline on their bodies and burned them. We have come to know two of the dead men’s wives pretty well. They are thoughtful, intelligent, sober and articulate; their suffering is unmistakable and intense.

Long Night’s Journey Into Day is a documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. As an early inter-title explains, those who committed crimes under apartheid (mostly white) wanted amnesty when it ended. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established  as a compromise, offering the perpetrators amnesty in exchange for the truth. Shockingly, eighty percent of those requesting amnesty were black. Where were the whites? Eric Taylor, the handsome Boer policeman, can at least be commended for cooperating with the process. But the wives of the “Cradock 4” opposed his request, and their lawyer caught him in a meaningful lie, so in his case amnesty was denied.

The Biehls and the Manqinas

The movie opens with the TRC’s most famous case, the 1993 murder of Amy Biehl. Because she was an attractive, young, white American woman, Amy’s murder was front-page news around the world. She was a Stanford student who had joined the struggle against apartheid, so her white womanhood comes with a twist. In fact, what happened to Amy Biehl was unspeakable. She was stabbed, stoned and beaten to death by a group of young black men solely because she was white. Monqezi Manqina, one of her assassins, says it made his heart sore to learn who she was.

“I thought she was just another oppressor,” he inadequately says in an interview.

Amy’s parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, decide that the best way to honor their daughter’s short life is to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process and support amnesty for Monqezi and the others. They fly to Capetown to meet their daughter’s murderers and testify at their trial. The Manqinas are astonished, as well they might be.

“Wow!” says a cousin with an intake of breath. “I couldn’t believe it when this lady phoned to say they were coming to meet us.” Half a dozen cousins seem to be there when the Biehls arrive, and the moment is emotional, of course. But before the meeting something unexpected happens. The Biehls, primed for the dramatic encounter, are led by mistake to the wrong house. It is a cement-block, tin-roofed affair, like all the houses in this township. Someone comes to the door who has no need of the Biehl’s forgiveness.

“Evelyn, Evelyn,” he calls when he sees them, surrounded by the camera crew. Evelyn is Monqezi’s mother, who lives next door. The Biehls and the crew troop anti-climactically off.

“By the time we got there we were half-hysterical,” says Linda Biehl, laughing as she tells the story for the camera.

A lesser film would have left this moment out, careful not to spoil the Big Moment. The story of the wrong house is spliced in after the forgiveness scene, but its presence here at all is a clue to the film’s aesthetics. With the confidence of real art, Long Night’s Journey Into Day doesn’t always stay on message but includes anomalous matter. The film’s method, instead of diluting its impact, only broadens its scope. Long Night’s Journey Into Day addresses the human dilemma in terms that both honor and go beyond the specific subject of the TRC.

Mississippi Burning

The assassination of the “Cradock 4” took place in 1985. Around 1990 Eric Taylor saw Mississippi Burning, a film in which cops kill civil rights workers in the American South.

“It made quite an impression on me,” Taylor admits. “Especially the involvement of the police in the assassination of activists. I started realizing that that’s actually not what policing is all about. It should rather be about protection.”

Whaat?? It is an appalling commentary on Taylor’s education, political culture, and/or moral intelligence that the no-brainer premise of this Hollywood drama—cops shouldn’t kill if they don’t have to—came as life-changing news. On the other hand, if he really didn’t know any better . . . and he did finally change, influenced as well by Nelson Mandela’s autobiography . . . but then again, he didn’t change enough. A review of the movie describes him as only “half-repentant,” and some of his claims don’t seem repentant at all.

“All of the people that I worked with were Christians,” he says firmly in one interview. “You must remember that one of the elements of Communism is atheism. And that is the outstanding point as far as I’m concerned that actually justified the kind of work we were doing.”

Imagination

Racism, like all forms of discrimination, is a failure of imagination. It is difficult to imagine the reality of others, and yet it’s what we’re here to do. Some people in this film are better at this than others. In an early segment   we see Evelyn Manqina imagining the woman whose child her son has killed. Evelyn doesn’t have much camera-presence, so we have to listen up to catch her story.

“It’s going for Christmastime,” Evelyn offhandedly says. Christmastime? Her homely face is sad. “Each and every house is sitting with his family around the table enjoying themselves. She’s going to sit at the table but when she’s sitting and eating thinking that there’s somebody short here.” Who is “she”? Oh, it’s Linda Biehl. “She passed away without any sickness,” says Evelyn flatly. This time “she” is Amy. “You haven’t been even to the doctor.” Just like that.” At this she turns away.

“It’s too much,” she whispers, crying. Scared for the fate of her son; possibly angry and surely horrified by his behavior, she has nevertheless scripted a tale about Linda Biehl, not herself and her son. It is moving to catch what is going on here; perhaps it is Evelyn’s total unfitness for the limelight that makes this moment heartening as well. In this unlit corner of the movie something shines very,  very bright; so perhaps, one vaguely feels, in some unlit corner of oneself there is some quality of self-transcendence to match. The Biehls, of course, are as worthy of praise as Evelyn Manqina when it comes to imagining back; but the Biehls play a starring role in the film, and Evelyn does not.

Who in this movie activates our imagination? Although the issues in Long Night’s Journey Into Day are moral and political, aesthetic criteria are also relevant. In a way it is a question of acting, just as in any movie or play. What choices do people make, consciously or not, about how to enact themselves for the film? How do their choices affect us? I don’t want to set up a hierarchy here; part of the interest of Long Night’s Journey Into Day is, precisely, the variety of choices its subjects make. But some of the subjects become “non- other” to the viewer, and others do not.

Acting Themselves

Mary Burton, a TRC Commissioner, is a gracious public figure, thoughtful and kind. Wearing a large, clumsy set of headphones on her ears, she gently asks a mother at a trial, “Can you tell us what is on your heart today?” But dignity and decorum, even kindness, do not bring us close to their representatives; and in any case Mary Burton is there to facilitate other people’s stories, not to tell her own. Among the victims of the violence, it is Peter Biehl who best illustrates the more restrained end of the spectrum. He was in a meeting, he tells us straightforwardly. A secretary came with the news. On an airplane home he wrote a letter to his murdered child. Only on the second or third viewing does a viewer notice that his mouth sometimes quivers as he speaks. Neither over-emotional nor too composed, Peter walks a steady line, always aware of his role.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who cannot be said to be acting at all. One such is Sharon Welgemoed, a white woman whose sister has been blown up in a bar. She is often oblivious of the camera, glaring, angry, sharp from pain. Also oblivious are the mothers of the “Guguletu 7,” a group of activists who were framed and shot by the security police. At the trial of the young men’s assassins, the mothers become physically possessed by their grief, shouting and throwing their arms in the air. They are restrained by friends and officials and bundled out of the courtroom. Later they confront the one officer who told the truth.

“Look at me,” says one of the mothers in a rage. “Do you see how thin   I am?” She stands up to show him her body. “Do you see how thin? I used to be fat.”

I deeply admire Peter Biehl, and I wince at the seven mothers’ agony; but if truth be told, I feel some distance from them all. Peter’s feelings are muffled by his awareness of being watched, so he doesn’t come close; and the others are distanced by some lack of awareness, it seems. Their lives are happening elsewhere; not now, with me. We can see through the camera to them but they don’t “see” us. Who in this film hits the sweet spot between self-consciousness and oblivion? Surely one is the wife of Fort Calata, one of the “Craddock 4.” Nomonde Calata has a sophisticated, steady awareness of being filmed, but unlike the public figures and Peter Biehl, she still gives herself away. She knows we’re there, but she lets us in, which is one definition of intimacy. How does she do it? How does she both contain and allow what arises in real time? And isn’t that the actor’s job, to mediate between the demands of her role on the one hand and her own heart and mind on the other? What hurts most, says Nomonde, is the fact that her husband’s body was burned after his brutal death.

“And I can’t,” she says, dabbing her eyes, “even now I can’t make peace with that.” The murder was fifteen years ago, but the phrasing, the emphasis. . . every tonality speaks of Being unfolding right now. When Nomonde cries outright, as she does at this point, it is in a way we may safely witness. The cameras are rolling, and she knows it.

In Respect for Acting Uta Hagen imagines a cat onstage sitting quietly on a chair, following a bit of blowing lint with its eyes. The audience, she says, will be riveted on the cat unless the actors are equally real. In Nomonde’s scenes she is as present as the cat, as conscious of her part as Meryl Streep. We see her in the kitchen with her children, wondering; singing soberly in church; and in a newspaper picture holding the baby she was carrying when her husband was killed. She tells of falling silent among friends, assailed by grief. Finally we see her trying to imagine Eric Taylor, something she finds hard to do. She wears a pink blouse and sits in front of a wall hanging, African gold and blue. Amidst the clashing of colors and styles, Nomonde alone is all one thing.

“Why did he allow himself to be used,” she says slowly, “if he was used by someone else—to kill our husbands?” The fingers of both hands are at her temples in a classic gesture of speculation; there is a slight frown on her face. “Did they have wives, and children . . . then? Or were they just unmarried men?” She thinks this over for a moment. “Maybe they didn’t have wives,” she concludes. There is a pause during which the issue of children seems to have been lost. “And children,” she slowly adds. We could not be closer to her arising thought than this.

The Angels Again

At this moment of closeness we cut to the dancing white girls with whom I began. Speaking of children, the film seems to say, here are the lovely children of the Boers.

“Two  sons, one daughter,”  says the grave, neutral voice of Eric Taylor  as the camera finds his handsome, silent face. “The eldest one is now twenty and then the younger one, the only daughter, only four.” If this doesn’t make us gasp, nothing will. Yes, he had children; but no, he didn’t stop to think that Fort Calata, who also had three children, would be missed. Elsewhere in the school auditorium more white-clad children shelter candles, making a hallowed moment for their little world.

“I hit Mr. Calata from behind with this heavy object,” Taylor has testified in court, “approximately where the head joins the neck. He fell to the ground. I cut the petrol pipe from the Honda to pour over Mr. Goniwe’s and Calata’s bodies, and I set both those bodies alight.” In the end, Taylor says, he’ll have to tell his daughter what he’s done, but she’s too young now to understand. What is one to do with the unwelcome spasm of sympathy one feels for this benighted man? A horrible moment awaits him. The camera pans down the line of candles, showing only the children’s hands. The candles must be lit for all our souls.

The Other Mother

Maqezi Manqina is granted amnesty. His cousins are wild with joy, hugging and kissing him at once. One is beautiful, her young face under her baseball cap flashing with joy. Evelyn’s face is neither joyful nor young.

“No,” she sighs in answer to a question we don’t hear. “I’m not happy. I don’t know. Something in between.” She doesn’t look “in-between,” however. She looks as if she’s chewing on something she knows will make her sick. Something is deeply off at the center of life.

“I’m thinking of the other mother,” she says heavily. As the cousins celebrate, Evelyn goes outdoors. She stands in the alley alone, arms crossed.

In a gesture of courage worthy of its subject, the film makes the choice to leave us there.

Credits

Directed by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann; written (in English, Xhosa and Afrikaans, with English subtitles) by Antjie Krog; directors of photography, Ms. Reid and Ezra Jwili; edited by Ms. Hoffman; music by Lebo M; produced by Ms. Reid; released by Iris Films/Cinemax Reel Life.


Linda Bamber is a Professor of English at Tufts University. Her poems, essays and reviews have appeared in The Harvard Review, Ploughshares, Agni, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, Southwest Review, Southern Humanities Review and elsewhere; her poetry collection, Metropolitan Tang, was published by David R. Godine.

lindabamberwriter.com

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