The Portfolio: ‘Murder in Paris’ director Enver Samuel

Having Murder in Paris selected for the 23rd edition of the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival is a proud moment, because it is considered one of Africa’s foremost documentary festivals. For a festival with its roots in Cape Town, considering that Dulcie September hailed from the Cape Flats, it is particularly poignant. 

The film aims to “un-erase” the name of Dulcie September. In the process, one discovers a multi-faceted person, what motivated her to fight for the liberation of South Africa and her headstrong attempts to uncover the murky world of arms deals between the apartheid regime and France.

I have a passion for telling the stories of the unsung heroes and heroines of the South African struggle against apartheid, which started off with my two documentaries on activist Ahmed Timol. I believe that the telling of the story of September is both timely and appropriate.

Murder in Paris is the culmination of a four-year journey for me, which begun in April 2017. A chance meeting in Switzerland with Randolph Arendse, a close relative of September’s, led me down the long road of making a documentary on a truly remarkable woman. 

One of the obstacles was the search for archive material. It was a big task for me: one that almost took on super-sleuth connotations. It is like searching for and finding nuggets of gold. There is a pounding of the heart as one door opens and another and another, which takes you down a journey of discovery.

On my first discovery of video footage I was transfixed. There before me, dressed in a pink top, with a soft voice and a hesitant smile was September speaking to me. The tears welled up in my eyes … I had been working on Murder in Paris for two years: I had immersed myself in reading about September; obtained countless photographs of and newspaper articles about her. I had no clue till then about her voice, her accent …

“I’m Dulcie September. I’m the chief representative of the African National Congress in France.” In an instant she had become a fully fledged, three-dimensional character and I could pick up nuances that no book, article or photograph could. 

For me, Murder in Paris unveils a number of complex issues that deal with the nature of liberation struggles, the moral and political questions and, critically, the gaps and silences in the telling of the story of the fight against apartheid. 

Her personal and political integrity, her principled position, her moral courage and her vision for a better South Africa stand as a strong reminder of how central these values are, even today as we confront the “unfinished business” of the past and the present. And on that growing list, the unresolved issues and unanswered questions that swirl around the murder of Dulcie September must be writ large.

When I presented the documentary to the family members, September’s niece, Nicola Arendse, was moved to say: “I saw my aunt talking for the first time — hearing her voice and seeing her ‘alive’ in the video clips. That was very special, a poignant moment for me. I saw my aunt as a person who did what she did thoroughly and completely. 

“She asked questions and challenged those who needed to be challenged, even if it was to produce better work standards. The documentary speaks to her as a freedom fighter and as a person with her own unique character”. 

For me, these are the reasons why we make documentaries.

It has been 33 long years since Dulcie September’s assassination and there has been no justice for her and her family. I believe Murder in Paris finally gives her a voice and I am hoping it will, in some form, be a catalyst to bring her name back into public discourse and, eventually, play a role in reopening an inquest into her untimely death.

Murder in Paris is showing at Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, which runs until 20 June.

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