On Telling the Human Story of Apartheid Through Film

South African filmmaker Zwelethu Radebe talks his forthcoming 24-minute Apartheid-set film, The Hangman "Umlengisi"

Zwelethu Radebe’s forthcoming 24-minute film tells the story of a family torn apart during the days of Apartheid. But it’s not an Apartheid story, insists the 27-year-old South African filmmaker.

The Hangman “Umlengisi" takes place in Johannesburg in 1974 and 1989, the final year of the execution process at Apartheid South Africa’s gallows. “The hangman” in the title refers to Khetha, a young black man who has taken up work as a death row prison warden. Already a complex situation, right? To his all-white colleagues, Khetha is sub-human. To his fellow black men, the inmates, he’s a traitor.

But there’s even more to this complex exploration of human dynamics and the human condition.

One day, Khetha realises that one of the inmates recently transferred from max to death row is his estranged father.

It’s the human story of the struggle of Apartheid, Radebe tells Okayafrica. “It’s a universal story that looks at how characters were victims to a system, and the circumstances of the choices we make.”

One such condition the film explores is the circumstances of our choices through the theme of the absentee father. “In society today, we’ve always had the image of a black father being negative. The father leaves, goes off with other women, has children everywhere. We haven’t looked at the circumstances of that,” says Radebe.

He adds that South Africa’s young people are only just now starting to re-examine and explore the deeper issues behind certain things they were told to believe––and believed––from childhood. “We come from a past where you weren’t necessarily given the opportunity to ask questions. You were told this is how it is. Now we are asking ourselves questions,” he says.

For Radebe, the story of Apartheid is known only from a superficial place.

“What I would like South Africans to see is the human side of Apartheid. And not just tanks going down the streets in Soweto, and a dictator of a president talking to the masses.” Radebe is more interested in looking at who are the people listening to the president, and who are the people living in the townships and sitting next to a fire talking about life. “Not every conversation was about what P.W. Botha said. And what this man was saying, and this political party.”

Rather, these were political influences. And political influences influenced people in the past, just as they continue to do today. But they’re not the story Radebe is interested in telling.

“This is the human story of the system story. I’ve always felt like you need to look away from the forces and look at the internal battle that we fight as people,” he says.

And although The Hangman is not based on one specific story, its writer/director maintains the film comes from a very true place. “The story is someone’s story out there,” he says.

The film is currently in post-production. Radebe and the Tribal Media House production team have their eyes on a Sundance 2017 world premiere.

We’ll continue to keep you updated. In the meantime, go behind the scenes on the set of The Hangman with photographer Kgomotso Neto below.

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo: Kgomotso Neto

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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