“Nelson was branded a Saint, and she was a Sinner.”
Pascale Lamche, director of the award-winning documentary WINNIE that endeavours to show the Winnie Mandela behind the controversial tabloid headlines, will be joining our post-film Q&A session on Thursday at The Castle Cinema to give us an insight into telling stories about strong and inspiring woman. To get you in the mood, here’s a taster of her power-house approach that all starts with listening to your subject. Enjoy!
How do you go about telling a story about a woman like Winnie, and why did you want to tell it?
I’d made three films in South Africa and lived there with my partner who had been one of the youths who’d been arrested during the Soweto uprisings of 1976 and been put into solitary confinement.
Winnie was such an interesting and mysterious character. She’d been Mama Wethu (mother of the nation) – the gorgeous and radical wife of Nelson Mandela (whom I’d interviewed). She’d struggled so courageously against apartheid, faced arrests, torture, solitary confinement, banishments and been exiled to far away rural provinces – all in a futile attempt to silence her. Then she was branded a murderer, a fallen woman, a sort of contemporary sorceress.
Nelson was a Saint and she was a Sinner.
She was enormously respected in townships throughout South Africa, and yet wherever I travelled in the world she had never managed to shake off the reputation of having sullied the name Mandela, having brought the Struggle into disrepute.
There seemed to be a suspicious lack of fit. And in the context of an unhappy contemporary South Africa in which many, and particularly the youth, feel the hopes of those Struggle years have been sold down the river, now seemed a good time to take another look at Winnie’s story and to dig a whole lot deeper.
How to tell a story about a compelling political figure whose considerable power had been neutralised, partly as a consequence of her beliefs and partly as a consequence of being a woman and a wife … well, I began with Winnie herself. I wanted to really listen to her and unpeeled the layers of narrative over hours of interview. I wanted to dig into the media storms that had erupted around her in the past. I wanted to find the soldiers who had been commanded by her in the underground military wing of the ANC. And I wanted to talk to the directors of the intelligence services and psychological warfare programmes who were her enemies.
And that was just for starters.
Have you learnt anything from her?
Yes. I learned how easy it is to take down a female political figure. And I learned how hard it is to maintain a social conscience and morality in the face of global business interests. Also, how love and commitment can create the most powerful bonds for the good of communities. And how compromised those communities become when those bonds are broken.
It’s not uncommon for women in the political sphere to suffer a lot of public abuse, spark controversy and divide opinion. Do you think women like Winnie scare the mainstream media, and the public consensus at large?
I think ‘patriarchy’ is a form of political, economic and social organisation that has dominated world History and continues to prevail among other structures that are contrary to the overall good of humanity.
Powerful and political female figures who go against the grain of consensus and the interests of big business, are very rare. It is difficult for them to raise and maintain their heads above the parapet.
Do you identify with Winnie – do you feel like you are fighting for something in your work?
I do hope that my work sparks a conversation about what one needs to get right in a budding democracy and whose interests it is more ethical to be concerned with. What society needs to prioritise in order to function for the good of the many rather than the few.
Is there another woman documentary maker on your radar?
So many great women documentarians: Agnes Varda, Ann Guedes … more recently: Sarah Polley, Carole Morley, Laura Poitras, Jacqueline Caux, Sophie Fiennes, Kyoko Miyake, Yance Ford (by claiming the she in Yance) …
What’s your next project?
I’m working on several. But one that’s pretty close to some of the concerns that I was interested in exploring in Winnie, is about Alice Coltrane. She was a genius composer and musician and wife of the legendary jazz ‘guru’ John Coltrane. And a very conservative jazz establishment has never given her her due. I use one of her tracks in the opening of Winnie.
See Pascale talk after our screening of Winnie on Thursday 16th November at The Castle Cinema. Tickets and info here.