The man who refused to regret punishment


STRUGGLE stalwarts: (from left) Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), Mac Maharaj (Shahir Chundra), Walter Sisulu (Josias Moleele) and Nelson Mandela (Sello Motloung). Photograph courtesy

WHEN YOU WATCH the political rhetoric being thrust hither and yon on social media and other young platforms, the one thing that you notice is its lack of nuance. Political diatribe in South Africa in 2019 paints white people as racists. Blanketly. Utterly regardless of their history or struggle credentials. Jean van de Velde’s extraordinarily fine film, An Act of Defiance: Bram Fischer comes at the right time and tempo in this country’s growing voice of racially-based protest. It presents a tale that doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes, but is one that is true and holds this country’s struggle history together with muscularity and great heart.

Advocate Bram Fischer (1908-1975) had more to lose in opposing apartheid than the average white freedom fighter. He came of Afrikaans stock. The powers that be defining apartheid values and rules knew him from within. He represented a level of betrayal they refused to stomach. And Fischer paid the price for this. But he never reneged on his sense of human value or his integrity. Indeed, he commented that if his struggle (and punishment) enabled others to understand the injustice and horror of apartheid, it would not have been in vain.

This is a top-class film that not only offers a portrait of the texture of 1950s and 1960s South Africa, in everything from its common racist parlance to its automobiles and a colour treatment that evokes photographic snaps of the era, but it also tells an important story. You can read the history of the Rivonia Trial, for which Fischer led the defence, anywhere, but van de Velde warms up the context by presenting the family love that Fischer (Peter Paul Muller) shared with his beautiful wife Molly (Antoinette Louw), daughter Ilse (Izel Bezuidenhout) and son Paul (Leroux van Diemen). It’s warm. It’s real. And it is unbridled in its show of love, lending all four characters three dimensionality.

With Sello Motloung as a fierce Nelson Mandela who you could rely on to change this country, and José Domingos as the smarmy Percy Yutar, who led the prosecution in the Rivonia Trial, all the components are present in this real life tale. But they’re handled with a careful sense of casting and an acute understanding of stereotype. The character of Yutar is a complex one because he was so vehemently racist in his values and so unabashed in his association with the Jewish community of South Africa. His position was anathema to the perspective of other Jews in this tale, Jews on the political left, such as Joe Slovo, but also Denis Goldberg (John-Henry Opperman), Rusty Bernstein (Greg Viljoen) and Joel Joffe (Conrad Kemp), and yet, Domingos plays this role with a level-headedness that makes you hate Yutar for his opinions and naked bias and not his identity.

The secondary characters in this tale – including Hilda Bernstein (Sylvaine Strike), Judge de Wet (Dan Robbertse) and George Bizos (Daniel Janks) – lend the work the narrative core and sense of context that feed into a clear understanding of the challenges of the time. Anthony Akerman’s extraordinary recent radio series drawn from Annmarie Wolpe’s memoirs resonates with this dramatic and potent piece of South African history.

But there’s more: this is not only a dry account of heroism. Fischer’s political career came to an end in a particularly tragic way. He and Molly were on their way to visit their daughter in Cape Town. A car crash resulting in Molly drowning was the catalyst that enabled the apartheid operatives to get their man. Fischer’s life (and death) in prison was characterised by even more cruelty than was typical of the era. But none of this appears explicitly in the film. It is instead alluded to in an ending that offers the kind of subtlety evident in the film of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (directed by Philip Kaufman in 1988), in its sense of narrative perfection, supported by a few facts of text at its closure.

This is an exceptionally excellent film. It was made in 2017 and has already done its rounds through the rest of the world. It’s time for local audiences to behold this story in all its texture and authenticity, and to understand.

  • An Act of Defiance: Bram Fischer is directed by Jean van de Velde, and performed by a cast headed by Izel Bezuidenhout, Hannes Brummer, José Domingos, Willie Esterhuizen, Zak Hendrikz, Daniel Janks, Conrad Kemp, Antoinette Louw, Sello Motloung, Fezile Mpela, John-Henry Opperman, Peter Paul Muller, Dan Robbertse, Russel Savadier, Sylvaine Strike, Jana Strydom, Leroux van Diemen, Greg Viljoen and Morné Visser. Written by Matt Harvey, Dominic Morgan and Jean van de Velde, based on the book The State versus Nelson Mandela by Baron Joffe and Joel Joffe, it is produced by Michael Auret, Richard Claus and Hugh Rogers, and features creative input by Floris Verbeij (music), Miles Goodall (cinematography), Sander Vos (editing), Christa Schamberger (casting), Chantal Carter (production design), Mia-Carla Bunge (set) and Sulet Meintjes (costumes). Release date in South Africa through Cinema Nouveau and Ster Kinekor: April 26 2019.

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