Maverick Life

TRIBUTE

Mandy Jacobson — a compassionate, incurable optimist and inspiring human

Mandy Jacobson — a compassionate, incurable optimist and inspiring human
Documentary filmmaker Mandy Jacobson. (Photo: supplied)

The death of the award-winning documentary filmmaker, who led a courageous and full life, has left a big hole. 

I remember asking my mother why death is so shocking, even when you’re expecting it. I was six; she was standing at the window gazing out on a foul night, her shoulders slumped, her body a parenthesis in silhouette against the glass.

We were waiting for my father to bring the car around so we could begin the hours-long journey, in torrential rain, to her northern KwaZulu-Natal home town, Wasbank, where we would bury her father, my grandfather.

She didn’t turn towards me, but I heard her sigh: “It’s because it makes us realise we are mortal.”

I think that’s true, that when someone dies, death moves into the realm of the possible and we mortals are confronted with our mortality, and it shocks us. Every time. The inevitability of it.

But I think it’s more than that. Death is so final, so “The End” that knowing that there is no comeback makes us panic and fret.

When my mother died (I was 42), one of my biggest fears was that if I got lost in the woods, nobody would come looking for me. It’s a mother’s job — to keep the helicopters circling long after everyone has called off the search. I had that same sense of dread this month when my dearest friend Mandy Jacobson died.

We all have different views and beliefs about death. I think mine are most closely aligned with Ancient Greek philosopher Plato who, as is outlined in my Catholic creed, imagined the soul as immortal, able to live on after the destruction of the body.

But it is to Socrates that I go when looking for meaning in life, and death — he who said that living an unexamined life is worse than death. Mandy led an examined life full of adventure and courage.

Death and love, two of the most written about subjects in poetry.

Mary Frye begs us not to stand at the grave and weep, because our loved one is not there but all around us; John Donne warns Death: “Be not proud.”

Dylan Thomas urges us not to “go gentle into that good night”, inviting us instead to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

And so my recent thoughts have been about both. Love. And death.

We buried Mandy, whose boundless energy, incurable optimism, infinite curiosity and rousing belly laugh were cut short by a cancer diagnosis 16 months ago.

Legacy of spirit and ardour

That Mandy was globally renowned, a two-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work changed international law to include rape as a war crime, is really of secondary importance.

It was her legendary enthusiasm and effervescence that made her memorable. In her documentary Calling the Ghosts, about rape during the Bosnian War, she followed the lives of two women who had endured unspeakable trauma. Appalled by the statistics — an estimated 50,000 women were imprisoned in gyms, hotels, abandoned houses and concentration camps, and raped during the war in Bosnia — she resolved to do something about it.

Her humanity shone through in her storytelling and captured the attention of Emmy Award judges, who gave Ghosts high praise.

Mandy Jacobson, Juliette Binoche

Mandy Jacobson (left), seen with French actress Juliette Binoche, with her Emmy award for ‘Calling the Ghosts’. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s how we met: me interviewing her in downtown New York, in a small coffee shop called Match in Soho.

I asked about the personal cost of being exposed to the horror of war.

“It wasn’t about me,” she shrugged. She was so endearingly authentic, so passionate that I fell in love. We were instant friends.

Mandy introduced me to my ex-husband. It’s the only thing I’ve never forgiven her for.

But she also guided me through New York, held my hand as I negotiated the metropolis as an ingénue — an overawed, overeager, country bumpkinesque foreign correspondent.

It was 1998. We were a fledgling democracy. New York wanted to share in our truth and reconciliation success story, the zeitgeist of the ’90s. She ensured I met the right people while I told the story of the New South Africa.

About my ex-husband, one of her rejects talked up with Mandy enthusiasm, she was firm: he’s very smart. Okay, so he’s a bit bipolar. Shrug. Just go with the smart part.

Of course, he was an instant hit, he in his khaki chinos, cotton apricot shirt, crumpled lichen linen jacket and well-worn Docksides.

You see, she said, he’s perfect. A little manic. Meh. Another Mandy shrug.

Her ability to introduce her friends to the wrong men, or women, was legendary and has been the subject of much discussion and laughter among us.

But she was there for all of us at the pear-shaped end, with coffee and a wad of Kleenex.

Mandy Jacobson. Photo: supplied)

Compassion in work and life

Mandy and I both came home from New York to get on with giving flesh, in our different ways, to the promises of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and our new democracy — me writing about it, she making documentaries like Plot for Peace, which told the story of Frenchman Jean-Yves Ollivier’s involvement in the signing of the 1988 Brazzaville Protocol and discussions surrounding the release of Nelson Mandela.

And then I got sick, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. She drove me to every doctor’s appointment, where she took notes and then fed me bits of information when she thought I could hear it. I’d blanked out at the word cancer and could barely pay attention, disappearing into my head to imagine the horror ahead.

I cried a lot. She did too as we hugged each other and talked about the unfairness of it all. Of how random life was.

Using her Mandy charm, she wormed her way into the room where theatre patients wait on gurneys before being wheeled into the cut-and-sew room, where they would lop off both of my breasts to stop the cancer from spreading and replace them with silicone implants.

The lengths to which you will go for teenage tits, she said, whipping out her phone, opening my hospital gown and taking a series of photographs of my breasts. It’s the last time we’ll see them, she said. Let’s remember what they looked like. Click.

The gurney-wheeling theatre nurse clucked and shot us a disapproving look.

Mandy tightly held my hand to the steel doors, making the theatre nurse purse her lips as she loudly issued instructions to the anaesthetist and surgeons – the plastics man, the cutting doctor, her helper and an intern: “Remember it’s a double mastectomy; take only her breasts.”

“Your friend!” they laughed.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 09: (L-R) Simon Evans, Rusty Evans and Mandy Jacobson attend a special screening of "Plot for Peace" at The Curzon Mayfair on December 9, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

Documentary filmmaker Mandy Jacobson. 9 December 2013. (Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images) (Photo: supplied)

My friend, the social worker-documentary maker, set out to document the lives of the alcoholics, derelict, homeless, unwashed and unwanted Bowery Bums on one of New York’s most notorious Skid Row streets.

They shared with her the street where she lived, in a six-floor walk-up. She didn’t just interview these broken men society forgot; she danced with them, held their hands, lit their cigarettes, drank too much with them, talking to them in Mandy style: “What d’ya mean, babe?” to an ancient leathery man nursing a beer in a Bowery bar.

At one of her screenings, I heard her call Pik Botha, apartheid South Africa’s foreign minister, Pik-ela. I cringed. He beamed.

At lunch parties, you’d find her on the lawn playing with the children, competing with them on the trampoline, leading a conga line, building castles in sandpits.

I am in awe of how hard she lived; how much she fitted into 63 years; how dearly loved she was by everyone who knew her.

Her death has left a Mandy-sized hole in my heart. I will love her forever. DM

Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and media strategist.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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