The police shot down seven unarmed black youths in cold blood in the Guguletu township in South Africa. In an emotionally-charged sequence in Long Night’s Journey into Day Thapelo Mbelo, a black police informer who helped set up the murders, walks into a room to confront the seven bereaved mothers. One says to him, “My son Christopher was thrown away like a dog, shot and dragged away on a rope…. As Christopher’s mother, I forgive you. You and Christopher are the same age. I forgive you, Thapelo, because my child will never wake up again, and I don’t want to hold this wound against you, the evil you have done. I feel compassion for you, I want to get rid of this burden I have inside, and be at peace.”
A portrait of South Africa’s long dark nights of soul-searching at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this film is clearly a labour of love: the filmmakers’ passionate allegiance to the process shines through. They’re right to underline that South Africa has come up with a unique solution to the excruciating dilemma facing any society trying to heal the wounds of past injustice – forgiveness or retribution, amnesty or prosecution? But I can’t help feeling that the film would have been richer had they taken a slightly wider view: I missed hearing the voices of South Africans like Steve Biko’s widow with her radical critique of the whole ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ enterprise for letting the Apartheid regime off the hook far too lightly. The dilemma is more acute than this documentary reveals.
In their attempt to cram the film with a ‘case study’ of each of the categories of apartheid violence (White on Black, Black on Black, Black on White, ANC and SA Security Forces), the directors missed the chance to tell any one story fully, in all its complexity. Careering from one case to the next, the narrative tends to lose coherence, frustrating the viewer with unanswered questions. The situation is dripping with opportunities to watch human drama unfold on screen; many opportunities are missed. Together Reid and Hoffman directed, produced and edited – that’s a testament to their commitment to the story, but it looks like the structure of the film suffered from having the pair of them so close to the material and doing everything themselves.
The film’s opening, though, is finely judged for a US audience. The first case on screen is Amy Biel, a white US student sympathetic to the ANC, beaten to death by a black mob. Amy’s is a tragic story that pulls the heartstrings of a popular audience in the US, while prompting the question ‘but what about the thousands of black South Africans who died?’ The rest of the film goes on to tell you. It’s a long journey, through a night that’s not yet over.