If it were up to me, I’d have had Half of a Yellow Sun as the opening film at the 17th edition of the Zanzibar International Film Festival instead of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. East Africa’s premier cinema showpiece opened on Saturday June 14th on the idyllic Indian Ocean Island at its principal historic venue, the imposing Old Fort. The hype around the screen adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, especially its apparent banning in Nigeria and its resonance with the fact that many African countries are still grappling with early post-colonial unfinished business, would have made me choose it over the Mandela biopic. Well, there’s also the sentimentality about director Biyi Bandele was one of my screenwriter mentors at the Maisha Film Lab class of 2009, the garden where the seeds of my interest in film were planted. Festival goers have to wait until Wednesday June 18th for Half of a Yellow Sun’s screening at the open air amphitheater screening venue.
That aside, it was just as that Mandela opened the festival if anything to throw more spotlight on the fallibility of the man the Western media revered as “the world’s leading moral authority”, “world’s only living saint” et al. Yet from the film we see Mandela as the not so superhuman he was made out to be. Of particular interest were the relationships he had with his family and the women in his life especially with his first wife Evelyn Mase played by Terry Pheto who was the chief guest at the opening ceremony. It is quite telling that Evelyn walks out on Mandela if anything because she cannot take the apparent abuse, a bold statement that not every woman necessarily holds onto a bad marriage. Mandela’s mother worries about her son like every mother is wont to do while Winnie has to contend with a husband whose collision course with apartheid proponents lands him an extended stay in jail. You have to hand it to any woman that would wait 27 years for her man. And then there are his two daughters that have to live with the fact that they will have to settle for having an absentee dad and the trauma of apartheid cops raiding their house and whisking mum away to jail. That must be hard growing up knowing that you can only visit dad at his secluded Robben Island prison only when you are 18.
Maybe it is just as well that the bigger picture would be for the crumbling apartheid regime to make a deal with its archenemy for Black majority rule to prevail amidst a shaky democracy. So was Winnie short-changed in all this for taking her eye off the ball of the struggle with her infamous indiscretions with the lads in her soccer club? Was her sin too unforgivable or was Mandela just being human in walking away from a bad marriage like his first wife Evelyn did and wanting to move on? I still feel Naomi Harris is the real star of the movie and Seelo Maake ka Ncube (Generations’ Archie Moroka) would have been a better fit for Mandela over the hunky premium that Idris Elba brings to playing the lead role. That said, reading the book must provide greater rewards than the visual escapism that the 141-minute movie provides.
Text: MOSES SERUGO (firstname.lastname@example.org)