'Miners Shot Down' an unequal representation of the bigger picture
I was asked to present a critique of Rehad Desai’s film Miners Shot Down at a recent Wits Media and Diversity roundtable at the invitation of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies last week.
There had been some rumblings in academic and non-governmental organisation circles about the biased content of the film and the conversation around the ethics of filmmaking was being hotly debated in private spaces.
Two major issues were pointed out. One was the fact that there was a complete lack of representation of women in this narrative – both the level of community and worker voice as well as specialised commentary.
The other critique centred on the fact that the filmmaker did not turn his lens onto white business at all, but chose to focus on Cyril Ramaphosa alone. Many dissenters expressed disappointment at that the one film that received the privilege of the bulk of the donor and film funding in South Africa had in fact made a film that did not begin to tell the full Marikana story and offered a thin and heavily predisposed narrative instead.
It was within this framework that I was invited to present a critique of the film from a social justice filmmaker’s perspective and as a social critic.
I had watched the film three times, and each time I was left with mixed feelings and somewhat dissatisfied. On the one hand the film does its job in that it thoroughly exposes the mishandling of the striking miners by the South African Police Service. It does this through the extensive excruciating graphic massacre footage that Desai accessed from the Lonmin security and police archives. This provides a new angle that goes some way to making revelations other than those already made by mainstream media or the Farlam Commission.
However, my overriding sense was that the film was lacking in nuance and the complexity that one would see in a John Pilger film, for example. Desai’s film is a compelling and emotive rendition of one aspect of the entire historical Marikana event – slickly presented in great editing.
But in the end it is a one-dimensional delivery. The film displays an absence of experienced investment in investigative journalism and as a result lacks the intricacy and layering of issues that one would expect in a film of this stature.
Though the film is lauded by many on the Left and has won awards on the mainstream film festival circuit, it is certainly not the whole story of Marikana.
I also argue that, in many respects, this film feeds the dominant whiteness narrative by focusing its lens singularly on a one-sided “black-capitalist bogeyman” aspect. In this way, though it presents itself as an anti-hegemonic piece, it becomes subtly dangerous as it reinforces and exports globally, an anti-black narrative by pasting only black face onto a story that fails to hold western-based white business accountable too.
Violated black bodies
Miners Shot Down begins with a two-and-a-half minute montage of the upsetting carnage footage – focusing on the striking miners being shot down. Later in the film we are witness to another five minutes or so of graphic police footage of the massacre. We watch the entire shooting unfold in more detail and cry bitterly for the dying men being insensitively handled by the police as they are searched, roughly turned over and dragged by cops armed to the hilt.
Eight minutes is a long stretch in film time and must be an excruciating experience for the widows or fellow mineworkers to sit through in community screenings of this documentary. In fact, many of our own interviewees had indicated it was extremely difficult for them when they were forced to watch on television, over a period of a year, the same massacre media rolled out in an incessant news loop.
Indeed, the 16-year-old daughter of a slain miner told me that she was traumatised for a long time after the killing of her father by being forced to re-witness it so many times on television and radio. She told me that death was a private affair but that they were never afforded that privacy.
Thus the opening scene signals that this film, though an expose of facts and footage not seen on the news, immediately falls into the same insensitive sensationalist trap as mainstream media. It takes on the same lens in the fetishisation of the public killing of black men that we saw on television stations around the world in the media massacre frenzy that occurred for months after the event.
These massacre scenes, unfortunately, seem natural to many viewers because what we are witnessing is the disciplining and killing of black bodies – workers bodies – and we know that historically the same privacy and emotional rights are not afforded to black Africans as they are to other groups.
The South African middle-class population is somewhat inured to the lynching of black men in our public and collectively allay their fears of blackness through state sanctioned violence against black bodies.
Those slippery white
One always has to ask who is being protected in the way stories unfold, the victim or the perpetrators? In human rights films it is usually the victims. In Miners Shot Down though, it is rendered in what is not said that points to who is being protected in this narrative.
On the one hand, the victims are black and poor and while this film is offering a pro-poor, leftist and alternative view of the premise for the massacre, it does not afford the people of Marikana the privacy of death or grief, or protect them from re-exposure to the carnage.
On the other hand, the perpetrators are black and elite and thus inevitably the subject of varying level of conservative, moderate and leftist derision.
It could be argued in the end that Desai seems to be protecting white business in that he falls into the mainstream trap by failing to turn his lens to the Lonmin mine bosses who are nowhere to be seen in this film. The British office is not approached – the white management is not scrutinised on camera in the same way that Ramaphosa is, and the chief executive of the time, Ian Farmer, was not interviewed at all.
Instead the black Lonmin spokesperson, Barnard Mokwena, is sent by management to be the Lonmin’s black face of the Marikana Massacre and is interviewed by Desai, who seemingly accepts this capitalist trickery.
In this way the film becomes a purely black affair, a reworking of the black-on-black violence discourse from the 1980s into the contemporary common sense “capitalist-black” black-on-black violence discourse as if white economic imperialism had nothing to do with this heinous event.
Casual references to “the capitalists”, “the Lonmin mine owners”, “the management”, become lost in some sort of nebulous haze and are thus meaningless to your average viewer. Yet again corporate Lonmin is not called to account and falls under the radar.
The general middle class in South Africa does not question this dominant narrative at all. For them black face is to blame for all the ills in this country and the film feeds that narrative. This is the narrative that is exported to an overseas audience too.
We know Ramaphosa is culpable, but then so is white business. I cannot for the life of me understand why Desai chose not to challenge Lonmin on their dastardly treatment of their workers in tandem with his grilling of Ramaphosa.
Where have all the women
The other glaring omission in this offering is the fact that there is not one voice of the Marikana women in this film. One would think that this community is only made up of men – that it was only men who were impacted by this historical event. This is highly unsatisfactory and a glaring misrepresentation by the filmmaker even if his intention was to focus on production issues only. There are plenty of women miners that were caught up in this Marikana strike action.
Women played a hugely proactive and supportive role in this struggle. Women organised and took on leadership roles in this community. They were intrinsic on every level of the strike. On top of that it was largely the women who carried the economic burden in this community through the protracted strike periods.
And those women who were not striking miners but were miners’ wives, had strong views and opinions about why they supported, wholeheartedly, their partners decisions to continue with the protracted strike action. They were involved in this struggle as much as the miners were, though they were often starving or harassed and sometimes even shot at by police in the months following the massacre. It was they who girdled their belts and eked out a plan for their families to survive this extended period of no money coming in.
The multiple layers of oppression experienced by women in Marikana seemingly did not matter to Desai – who told the round table that he was unapologetic about his approach to the gender issue. He spoke of his choice to show women as “perpetrators” instead in the faces of national Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega and the North West provincial commissioner Lieutenant General Zukiswa Mbombo. This, he insisted, was his contribution to the issue of women and gender with regards the Marikana story.
From a feminist perspective this is inadequate representation of women’s issues and in fact becomes a false representation of women. Yet again he creates an impression that this is only about black-on-black violence, which he now, in a seeming fit of misogyny, uses to frame women’s issues.
The fact that he chose not to represent women as community members and workers in the one film that got the exposure that Miners Shot Down did, is indefensible.
... Who really
The film style also determinedly feeds into the master narrative by presenting the story in a commercialised framework – which consulting producer, Bheki Peterson, intimated, was an intentional styling of the film so that it “entertained”. It is “styled” into a high-end television / cinema “whodunnit” criminal investigation framework with kind-of BBC overtones. It is a slick rendering of some epic framing and helicopter shots, interviews with soft hazy backgrounds, and some distant and mid-shots of miners in strike mode.
Weaved into this is the plentiful (freely obtained) footage from Lonmin security and police archives, which ironically, is the most compelling, gritty, moving and award-winning footage in the film. This is over-layered with emotive music which sometimes sounded like the Lion King score and irritated me to no end.
Interlaced into this was a non-committal personal narrative, which loses its point or purpose halfway through the film except to make some tenuous political connection between Desai and Ramaphosa in the 1990s … and vaguely seek to show what a disappointment he has become to the narrator. Again – is this really the space for a suggested Oedipal crisis with political pretensions?
The narrative quickly asks one question; whether the filmmaker is making a clear statement about his positionality or just playing it safe? Is his the voice of a social-justice activist, the radical-leftist revolutionary, “activist of all activists”, or merely an individual with a half-way dissenting voice? Is he, in fact, intimating that he helped to build the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) or trying to convince his audience that he has a rich political history on a par with Ramaphosa’s past?
I could have done without all that personal confusion and self-genuflection in the narrative.
Profits before people?
In a film industry and donor sector like ours, which many have indicated has channelled all the Marikana story funds to Miners Shot Down, the singular filmmaker who is awarded the privilege of telling the “one and only feature Marikana story” must be held accountable to the people he claims to represent. Instead he has made a film that lacks nuance and depth and exports a hazy yet slickly rendered product that clearly panders to an overseas market.
Miners Shot Down’s greatest success may have been in how it has been used as an awareness-raising tool in community settings – but at a budget of R5-million rand, it was clearly made as a product that also has top entertainment value premised on the packaging of the brutalisation of black collective bodies in high-end film for middle-class consumption.
In this case it appears that the filmmaker’s commercial interest in film’s profits and sales influenced his decision to make this another saleable version of black-on-black violence similar to the discourse manufactured in the 1980s (which overlooked the third force element, or the white ideological premise for creating this instability) rather than scrutinise the white dominated global business elements in the Marikana tragedy alongside his critique of the ANC black-led government.
Both are equally deserving of aggressive critique.
Hence I argue that that we need to make a clear distinction between social-justice stories and commercial filmmaking. The Marikana massacre is about real people with real families. It really cannot be squeezed into a whodunnit masculinist framework and sold as entertainment.
It has to be handled as a textured and layered human rights issue first. Unfortunately, Desai’s film falls into a sensationalist dominant discourse trap and leaves audiences with the impression that women are not intrinsic to, or are possibly even absent from, the worker struggles in South Africa.
Gillian Schutte holds an MA in Writing from Wits. She is a social justice activist, writer and documentary filmmaker and writes for various publications on issues of social justice, gender, race and identity. She has been extensively filming and writing articles on Marikana for over two years with her partner Sipho Singiswa. She is co-founder of the alternative media platform. The views expressed here are her own.