/ 13 August 2020

The Portfolio: Ramadan Suleman

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Perseverance: Ramadan Suleman spent 10 years working on his documentary, By All Means Necessary. (Paul Botes/M&G)

In 1969, 4 000 artists — among them painters, musicians, intellectuals, filmmakers, poets, dancers, journalists, writers, political activists — from the United States and all the African liberation movements, gathered in Algiers to take part in the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in the spirit of creativity and anti-colonial solidarity. 

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) commissioned Algeria to host the event. Algiers was chosen because of its long, drawn-out armed struggle against French colonialism, which was waged by its people from 1954 to 1962. 

The second Pan-African Cultural Festival, also commissioned by the renamed African Union, took place in 2009 in celebration of Africa’s 50 years of independence from colonialism, with 48 countries represented. 

In celebration of the Algerian liberation struggle and that of the rest of the continent, I was commissioned by the Algerian ministry of culture to produce a feature-length documentary, themed around Algeria and the African liberation movements, honouring the continent’s struggle against colonialism, from Algeria in 1954 to South Africa in 1994. The condition was that no funding was to be obtained from former colonial countries. 

Algeria accorded me free access to all the surviving role players of the liberation struggle, from the late president Ahmed Ben Bella and Djelloul Malaika (head of liberation movements in the presidency), to Djoudi Noureddine (Nelson Mandela’s translator, Algeria’s first ambassador to the OAU and head of the defence commission for liberation movements), as well as several individuals who were at the forefront of Algeria’s secret service. 

The Algerian Television and National Archives made available more than seven hours of archive footage after a three-hour tour of its premises. This material contained, in the most part, the history of the continent’s liberation struggle and footage of renowned leaders from Frelimo (Mozambique), Swapo (Namibia), PAIGC (Guinea-Bissau), the ANC (South Africa), MPLA (Angola) and other independence movements. 

Unfortunately, what stood out from this material was the total absence of women leaders. However, the most notable discovery was the exclusive footage of Miriam Makeba. She represented, for us, a creative opportunity on two fronts: firstly, as a liberation movement icon and secondly, as a musician. The cherry on top was her singing in various languages, including Arabic. 

In my interviews with many Algerians and liberation movement representatives across the continent, the name of a South African often kept cropping up: the late Johnny Makhathini, the ANC representative who single-handedly launched the anti-apartheid movement in the US. Strangely, no material of Makhathini could be found in Algeria.

The film has been 10 years in the making. Repeated attempts to obtain South African funding, going back as far as 2009, were unsuccessful. It was only in 2019 that the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture decided to support the project, together with the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, the National Film and Video Foundation and the Gauteng Film Commission. 

Ramadan Suleman is the director of By All Means Necessary, showing during the Encounters Documentary Film Festival, which runs from August 20 30. Visit the website to purchase tickets