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Goodbye Bafana

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Goodbye Bafana
Director: Bille August
Screenwriters: Greg Latter, Bille August
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert, Diane Kruger
Running time: 117 minutes
Certificate: 15

Goodbye Bafana offers a fascinating insight into the racial landscape in South Africa over four decades through homing in on the personal changes in the psychological make-up of a guard who is assigned to keep tabs on imprisoned activist Nelson Mandela. Documenting true events can be a tricky issue for filmmakers, who often find they must put their own dramatic spin on events to keep the audience entertained. Wisely, Bille August’s film deals with the narrative in just the right unobtrusive tone for the complex subject matter, allowing us to come to our own conclusions instead of being spoon fed.

The film charts the tale of South African prison guard James Gregory (Joseph Fiennes) as he keeps tabs on Nelson Mandela (Dennis Haysbert) back in 1968. He was given the job because he can speak the indigenous language Xhosa, having grown up on a farm amongst black children, including one called Bafana with whom he formed a close bond.

Now a fully-fledged racist, like his peers Gregory is forced to confront the nature of human existence through his encounters with Mandela. As their friendship develops so does the political landscape of South Africa, forming an absorbing parallel. Both men share a deep love for their respective families, although the African National Congress leader is denied the touch of his wife for 21 years. In contrast, Gregory is often depicted cosying up to his racially ignorant other half Gloria (Diane Kruger).

Based on Gregory’s memoirs, the narrative interestingly focuses on the guard rather than the guarded. Fiennes perfectly conveys the inner torment of Gregory, his face bathed in anguish as he tries not to let his mask of racism slip despite his doubts. This is notably foregrounded in a fantastic scene involving his wife Gloria, as she and fellow guards’ spouses mock Gregory for possessing a childhood photo of himself with his arm round Bafana.

The purity of a child’s thoughts is a recurrent theme throughout, hammering home how racism is not an innate property, but something that is taught. We see a child’s instinctive leaning towards compassion when Gregory’s young daughter witnesses a black mother, clutching her baby, receive a vicious beating on the street for the most trivial of reasons.

Goodbye Bafana also poses the question – who are the real prisoners? By the end of the film, the pervading feeling is that the white adults are mentally incarcerated by their own fear. Gloria Gregory is convincingly played by Kruger as a caring mother with aspirations of social advancement, but often spouting racist doctrines that have no doubt been drummed into her psyche during her formative years.

A film dealing with such a disgusting violation of human rights is bound to have a high emotional content if conveyed in the right tone. This is where Bille August’s directorial skills come to the fore, as he cleverly adopts a highly unobtrusive approach and lets us witness the grim sights of the period, sometimes using real news footage.

The scene featuring Mandela learning of his son’s fatal accident illustrates this point well. He is handed the telegram bearing the news, and a conversation between Gregory and a fellow guard is centred in the frame. Out of focus, in the background, we see Mandela’s reaction of abject shock, as the telegram falls from his hands and he stands there in despair. Masterfully subtle, this scene enables us to share Mandela’s hurt without any of the explicitly overt stylistic leanings that many Hollywood directors would adopt to manipulate the audience.

Dennis Haysbert nails the physical and vocal ‘Mandela-isms’ very well, although his portrayal may be slightly problematic for avid fans of action thriller 24 as he’s so closely associated with the role of President David Palmer, who bears many similarities to the South African activist’s ethos. Nonetheless, Haysbert is an actor of such presence and gravitas that he could easily recite the lyrics from a Cheeky Girls song and have you overawed at the profundity of it all.

Goodbye Bafana deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, as everyone can benefit from witnessing the triumph of human spirit and compassion above ignorance and racism. Fine performances, compelling subject matter and skilful direction allows the tale of Mandela and his prison guard to tap deep into your psyche. Go watch this film and see if you can fight back unleashing tears of joy as Mandela finally takes his first steps to freedom after 27 years of imprisonment…


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