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Filming the dark side

In January 22 Special Assignment on SABC3 featured The Cage Unlocked, the sequel to Clifford Bestall’s internationally acclaimed documentary on the Numbers gangs at Pollsmoor prison. The first, Cage of Dreams, won the coveted Grierson Award in the United Kingdom — ahead of David Attenborough and John Pilger — last October, after its sensational appearance on BBC television in April.

How did the series come about?

The BBC commissioned the first [called Killers Don’t Cry], which coincidentally was screened on SABC television in the week we won the Grierson, and it did very well in the UK. There was a huge e-mail response from viewers and the documentary sold extensively in all territories. The BBC asked for a sequel [called Killers Come Home in the UK], which we filmed at Pollsmoor in August 2001.

Describe the relationship between the documentaries.

The first programme concerns the century-old Numbers gangs and the impact of Joanna Thompson of the University of CapeTown’s Centre for Conflict Resolution on the lives of two gang members, Mogamat Benjamin and Erefaan Jacobs. The second documentary picks up their story after they leave prison and considers whether change in their lives will be permanent.

Both programmes involve a harrowing, compulsive scrutiny of prison life and the network of relationships inside and outside the cage that both sustain and impoverish these men’s lives. Why do you think the series prompted such a huge response?

In both there’s a cathartic moment in which the main characters go through huge change. In the first it’s as we follow the progress of Joanna’s workshops and the characters’ agonised reactions. in the second we sit with Erefaan and his mother — he’d threatened to kill her once he was released — as they say things to each other they have never said before. Erefaan makes it, he’ll be fine; we’re not so sure by programme’s end about Mogamat. I think viewers respond to the trajectory we take them on. First you fear and hate these guys, then we turn that on its head as you develop an enormous empathy for them. The e-mails repeated viewers’ sense of emotional release: “I wept, I wept, I wept.”

The programmes bear witness to a remarkable partnership between yourself and fellow filmmaker Pinky Joubert. How did you go about working together?

It’s never easy — you become so close and share a lot of emotional shit in making a programme like this. I could not have worked with anyone else. In the first we didn’t acknowledge how deep in we were; this time, we were more conscious of what would happen. It’s easy while shooting. The post-production, where you’re actually making the film, is when tension happens. You’re both conscious of every micro-second of film and you see the importance of things in different ways. This time, I insisted — literally — on calling the shots, and Pinky came in after I’d made the cut. It’s a question of authorship, of whose authorial voice wins through.

What is your next project?

The BBC has now commissioned a documentary on child and infant rape. You become the person who makes dark films for the BBC. I’m attracted to projects that involve that cathartic moment, which is why I am so interested in the work of the Conflict Resolution Centre. I like the dramatic shape it can deliver. Now I’ll have to make an exquisitely beautiful film about a very grim, violent subject. [Wry laugh] I do worry about being typecast!

What are the consequences for the gangs of this kind of exposure?

The Numbers gangs are already in a moment of decay: they evolved in response to the rule of white warders, and today as the authorities talk to prisoners and begin, painfully but surely, to normalise their situation, the raison d’être of the gangs will disappear. We worked hard to win their support.

Why make documentaries: to record events or to change them?

The film changed lives: Mogamat and Erefaan are role models and the conflict-resolution model is being applied throughout South African prisons. So, you are moving into positive territory. Yes, it feels valuable.

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