/ 12 June 2021

Review: ‘Murder in Paris’: Who killed Dulcie September?

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International solidarity: A demonstration in memory of Dulcie September in Paris, France after her murder in 1988. The banner readers: ‘Dulcie was our friend’. (Georges Merillon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Even for a country in the throes of a violent struggle for democracy, the 1988 murder of Dulcie September, an activist and anti-apartheid educator, was shocking. September, at the time the representative of the ANC in France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, was killed outside the ANC offices in Paris when five bullets were fired at point blank range from a .22-calibre pistol. She was 52 years old. The identity of her killer has never been revealed despite several investigations.

Murder in Paris, the new documentary by Enver Samuel revisits this cold case, diving deep into several frustrating clues that have been thrown up since September’s death 33 years ago. None of these leads — apartheid government involvement, French weapons industry — have led to a proper conclusion of the September affair and Murder in Paris, although in itself a terrific piece of cinematic investigative journalism, does not solve the mystery of September’s death. 

What the film does is bring renewed attention to the facts of the case, while putting forward and interrogating a few of these leads, some of which are hidden in plain sight. Samuel also reminds audiences of who September was, where she came from and why her story matters in the larger scheme. He launches into September’s story through the decades-long attempts at cracking the case by investigative journalist and author, Evelyn Groenink.

Samuel journeys across continents to speak with a cross section of the people who knew September best; friends, family and comrades, as well as those who were around during her final hours. Using interviews and archival footage, Samuel’s film paints a fascinating portrait of a patriot and dogged freedom fighter committed to the democratic ideals which she sadly did not live to enjoy in her home country. 

In some way, Murder in Paris serves as a companion piece to Samuel’s earlier documentary films, Indians Can’t Fly and Someone to Blame, both about the life and circumstances surrounding the brutal murder of Ahmed Timol in 1972. The young activist and teacher fell to his death at the hands of the police at the John Vorster Police Station in downtown Johannesburg. His death was initially framed by the police as a suicide. 

With these films, Samuel who had only a passing familiarity with September’s story before he was approached by her family members, continues to reframe the legacies of unsung heroes and heroines of the apartheid struggle who paid the ultimate price. 

Murder in Paris is a thrilling, fast-paced, if densely structured historic intervention that rewrites Dulcie September into the mainstream discussion while reclaiming her legacy from the confines of “forgotten apartheid hero”. Given their strictures, documentaries can only do so much, but this one does quite a lot.

This review emanates from the Talent Press, an initiative of Talents Durban, presented by the Durban FilmMart Institute.