The art of unforgetting: ‘Murder in Paris’ helps to seek justice for slain anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September
‘Impact producing’ means designing and implementing strategies and interventions to ensure that a film about social justice reaches the right audience, thus increasing its chances to have impact. This is why ‘Murder in Paris’ should be seen.
A shorter version of this article was originally published in The Conversation.
Social change takes many forms. From creating awareness and changing perception, to behaviour and policy change. In the case of documentary film impact, a campaign would centre around a powerful film, but the film itself is not what effects the change; to effect significant change – through non-violent means – requires careful planning, well-designed strategies and efficient implementation.
South Africa has a unique set of characteristics that influences what kinds of campaigns can be created and how to maximise their impact. It is also the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank, and more than half the population lives in poverty, according to Statistics South Africa; impact strategies designed for the US or Europe don’t always apply here.
This is why it is important to document and share case studies of local impact campaigns that cater to the South African context, audiences, challenges and opportunities.
At the recent Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, held in June, a panel discussion focused on the impact campaign of the film Murder in Paris, an event supported by the UCT Sunshine Cinema Film Screening Impact Facilitator short course.
Murder in Paris tells the story of the 1988 assassination of the ANC “ambassador” in France, Dulcie September, and the ongoing efforts by the family and a journalist to try and bring those responsible for the murder to justice.
The film co-won the Best South African Documentary Award at the Durban International Film Festival in August 2021; and the director, Enver Michael Samuel, won the Artfluence Award for Human Rights at the same festival.
During the panel discussion, Samuel as well as the film’s impact producer, Miki Redelinghuys, spoke about the genesis of the film, its impact goals and some of the tough distribution decisions they’ve had to make in order to reach the right audiences. The extract provided here focuses on the three impact goals, and how they guide concrete action as part of the impact strategy.
Liani Maasdorp (LM): Miki, I understand that from the very beginning, Enver was guided by three goals that linked to the change that you wanted to effect in the world with this film. And those were also inspiration for your work when you started [designing] the impact strategy.
Miki Redelinghuys (MR): So, the… low hanging fruit of any impact is awareness. And it is also the first impact goal in this campaign, but we are calling that “(un)erasure”; … secondly, a big driver is “justice for Dulcie”, and thirdly addressing family trauma. So, very clear, very simple impact goals that I think were already part of Enver’s strategy while he was still conceptualising the film. We were… guided by [a] quote in an article that Kelly-Eve Koopman and Rasmus Bitsch wrote for Africa Is a Country:
The cost of erasing Dulcie September and others like her, is not only the billions that could have been spent on a society in dire need. It is also the opportunity to accurately understand the past in order to improve the future. And, of course, justice.
Enver Michael Samuel (EMS): I [always] knew that there was going to be something strategic that needed to be in place because it wasn’t going to be that the broadcast stage was the be all and end all, but that the documentary had to take on… another life… after the broadcast, which it is actually doing at the moment.
This… erasure of Dulcie September is ongoing. And… it’s a common thing that during the production from 2017 to 2021 early February,… when you tell people about Dulcie September generally – if you’re not within ANC circles – the question is: “Dulcie who? Dulcie what? Dulcie, who is that?” And then when you explain, it’s: “Oh my, why… didn’t I know about this person?” So, I think… [w]e are contributing to unerasing the name of Dulcie September.
MR: Key to this process has been building a community. Liezl Vermeulen, who’s the co-impact producer on this project,… has been working very hard on building a community alongside Enver, from 2018 already reaching out to people, gathering names. And it’s about just gradually placing the story out there, putting Dulcie’s name out there, getting people to interact on social media, by subscribing to a newsletter. Another part of fulfilling this goal would be our #rememberDulcieSeptember campaign, which is going to be implemented by doing screenings, and a school campaign. We’re lining up that roll-out with August, which is Women’s Month and also… Dulcie’s birthday [month]. And then “say her name”, making Dulcie visible in public spaces. We are going to be running a public art campaign, and we are actively driving for key landmarks to be named in recognition of Dulcie.
LM: Something that… is… worth highlighting is that when you design an impact campaign, it is so powerful to link the work that you’re doing – the screenings of the film, the engagements with the film – to specific, existing dates like Women’s Month. So, I think that’s a very clear, clever strategic move on your part. Next, we’re going to talk about the justice for Dulcie aspect of the campaign, the second goal.
EMS: It’s become one of our pinnacle goals. The family of Dulcie September have always been looking for answers. And it’s now 33 years later… and the family are still suffering from the anguish of not knowing [who killed Dulcie]. The family had already started to try and seek… answers. The TRC failed them. The French courts failed them. So, they have recently [started an] initiative to get the case reopened. And I’m pleased to say… that the French lawyers working on the case have said that they will introduce the documentary as part of the evidence submission to get the case reopened.
LM: That is a very important point to highlight:… the film forms a central part of the social justice work… that’s being done through this campaign. Without the film, there is no campaign. And then [it’s] also… really important that the film that forms the centre point of an impact campaign is a really powerful… film.
EMS: When that window is open for you as a observer, making a documentary, you start to realise the pain and the anguish [of the] families… the bodies are bent, the language, the voice, you know. I guess that is in some ways my driving motivation to try and tell these stories, because I got an inkling into this pain and anguish of not knowing.
MR: That motivation drives the third goal in the impact campaign, [#merciDulcie], which is about using the film to address family trauma, to open dialogues, to talk, and to revisit this unresolved pain. Not that we, for one minute, think the film can offer resolution. But I think there’s a certain healing in recognition and dialogue.
LM: I think now it’d be a very good time to unpack a little bit around the distribution strategy for South Africa and your distribution strategy for France, because the two are quite different, right? In South Africa, you wanted to prioritise the SABC broadcast because you knew that that’s the space we meet the most of our audience [in South Africa].
EMS: Correct. That’s where you get the bums on seats. So, for me, that’s always been the main mission and I’ve done it with the three documentaries I’ve just made. I really feel that if you’re making these types of documentaries, that the more people that see it, the better, because that’s contributing to the unerasure. So, I pushed with SABC3 to also get the documentary shown on a significant day, and that was Human Rights Day. The first part was broadcast on Human Rights Day, and the second part was… one day before the 33rd anniversary of Dulcie’s assassination. Going this way has borne some fruit because the documentary made the top 15 of the ARS for SABC3, meaning that quite a considerable amount of people watch the documentary. That jeopardised my film festival chances, because it can’t be entered into official competition. So that’s something filmmakers must keep in mind, but for me, that wasn’t a reason to [not] roll it out.
LM: And I think that that’s such an important point to make for any impact strategist, that the distribution strategy should be an integrated strategy. So, having a festival release, broadcast, streaming: all of these different ways of distributing the film can actually benefit your impact campaign.
EMS: France is clamouring to watch the documentary. I mean, Dulcie was there for five years. If you look at the archive footage during her funeral, you would think that it was a funeral for a rockstar. Currently we are recutting the documentary for a European audience. This new cut for the European audiences, um, am I letting it out of the bag, Miki? It ends with President Macron saying something significant.
We arranged [for a travelling exhibition on September’s life] to come to the Nelson Mandela Foundation [when Macron was in Johannesburg on his state visit to South Africa]. The CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation took president Macron on a tour. And… he knew who Dulcie September was. He knew that [she had been] assassinated there, and he uttered – for us – the immortal words: “We will look into it.” The French lawyers are over the moon by this.
MR: That was a big moment for us, and we continue to build on that. And as Enver mentioned earlier, that part of the campaign is actually making it into the international version of the edit as well. So the two are constantly connecting: the film and the campaign itself.
LM: That’s so powerful. [It is]… important that you’ve got that conversation between the form and the impact campaign and that the themes of the film… link to your impact goals and vice versa, because otherwise your campaign is going to fall flat.
MR: The one thing I can add is that… we have in fact hooked the justice for Dulcie petition to the French president’s visit and his commitment to look into this and we hope that… everybody who sees the film is going to engage with that and take action. DM/ ML
Liani Maasdorp is a senior lecturer in Screen Production and Film and Television Studies, at the University of Cape Town.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved