Arts Festival

Amy Biehl and our amputated pride



MY boy, why have you forsaken me: Actor Thembi Mtshali-Jones in the stage play, ‘Mother to Mother’. Photo courtesy

WHAT DO YOU say to the woman whose daughter your son has murdered? This is the nub of Sindisiwe Magona’s fictional tale, Mother to Mother, about the murder of Amy Biehl, a young American graduate who came to South Africa, an anti-apartheid activist. She was murdered by an anti-white mob in 1993. The documentary film Mother to Mother, is about the play staged in 2012, based on the novel published in 1998, and in this convoluted way, touches on the South African story of democracy quite intimately. You can watch it on this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, available online from 20 until 30 August 2020. Because of the ongoing pandemic, access to this festival is free of charge.

There is a moment in the HBO prison series Oz in which a bereft mother gets to meet the felon who killed her son, a corrective officer in the institution. The felon is on death row. He is young and white. The mother is black. The gesture, the look, the words she offers are devastating. Not in their anger but in their forgiveness.

In this Gugulethu-based story within a story, this fiction within a truth, this enormous understanding of the potency of forgiveness is clearly articulated, but it is not scrutinised. Tantalising glimpses of Magona’s beautiful text are shared in this narrative about hatred and forced removals, about love and the broken hold of motherhood. This documentary is about the containment of stories surrounding the tragic end of a young white well-intentioned activist. The young men found guilty of murdering Biehl were granted amnesty from their 18-year-sentence, in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, with the support of Amy’s bereft parents.

And it is here in this film that there are beautiful interviews with Magona herself, with actor Thembi Mtshali-Jones, who reprised the role of the mother of the young man involved in this dreadful fracas, and with the play’s director, Janice Honeyman. And then the documentary delves deeper and it looks at the audiences and how they were impacted.

The work takes you to two high schools in Cape Town and interviews the pupils as to what they gathered from being in the presence of the play – and reading the book in class. While these teenagers articulate eloquently, there are some strange polarities offered in this film, which, if you are not South African and do not know its nuances, might present an odd anachronism. Are schools still segregated by race in South Africa? Are there no black children at Westerford High School in the posh southern suburbs? This is certainly the impression offered, and there are very precious moments where one child from the privileged white school, and one from Oaklands High, where the children are poor and black, meet awkwardly to discuss politics, in a park.

The book was written in 1998. The play saw light of day 14 years later. These are contemporary children, many of whom comment on their being part of the generation of so-called born frees, who have no lived experience of what the horrors of apartheid were like. It’s odd that the directors haven’t taken the grey areas surrounding youngsters and their privileges in a young democracy under their filmic loupe and developed this more.

So, you look at this film from the outside and you think of the bigness of the issues contained here and the complexity of that three-dimensional notion of forgiveness and its biblical potency. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s devastatingly fine contemplation of her own interviews with one of grand apartheid’s monsters, Eugene de Kock – also known as ‘Prime Evil’ – comes to mind. This work, entitled A Human Being Died That Night, also saw light of day on stage in 2014; it is honed to offer developed and oft difficult to stomach insights to understanding this killer. An emotional autopsy of forgiving the young man who stole Amy Biehl’s life is not developed with balance and clarity in Mother to Mother.

The other glaring absence here is one that seems to undermine the promise of the title of this documentary. Linda Biehl, the mother of the murdered Amy is present in a newspaper photograph. She is there twice-removed, in television footage and other illustrations in the staged play, but at no point is she present in real life in the documentary. She is not interviewed. We do not hear the sound of her voice. And maybe expecting her to be part of the bank of interviews is trite, but it feels like more needed to happen in terms of giving that mother her voice.

Your curiosity is inflamed but not sated in this film which speaks around the play and the novel, opens up the dialogue around democracy, but skirts bare facts.

  • Mother to Mother is directed by Sara CF de Gouveia. Produced by Dumi Gumbi, Carole Shore, Ashley Smith, Maralin Vanrenen, Cati Weinek, it features creative input by Gray Kotzé (photography), Khalid Shamis (editing) and Tiago Correia-Paulo (music). It is on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 20-30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

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