To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
22 Aug 2014 14:05
The Marikana massacre is about real people with real families. It cannot be squeezed into a whodunit masculinist framework and sold as entertainment. (Paul Botes, M&G)
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Create Account | Lost Your Password?