Director Boris Gerrets takes a well-known and controversial story – that of the Angolan mercenary-staffed South African 32 Battalion, known as ‘The Terrible Ones’ – and turns it into a tale of forgiveness and redemption.
Opening in a conventional documentary style – with archive footage of Angolan independence celebrations in 1975 and the swift descent into the civil war that marked the end of colonial rule in the former Portuguese colony, Gerrets seeks to tell the story of a battalion used with violent effect by white South Africa during the struggle to end apartheid, through the prism of the last days of Jesus, betrayed by Judas before his crucifixion.
In the service of others
A hybrid docu-fiction, Lamentations of Judas, is a powerfully unsettling take on the dangers of viewing history through a single lens. Today, surviving members of ‘The Terrible Ones’ eke out their lives in Pomfret, a remote town centred on a now-abandoned asbestos mine on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Pomfret had been the 32 Battalion’s base and the semi-derelict site remains the last resting place for many of the old soldiers in its austere and drably graveyard strewn with dappled ochre and brownstones.
Reviled in Angola and South Africa alike, the veterans of the battalion are now in their 60s and have little to do than to reflect on lives spent in the service of others for no reward other than lasting pain.
Many of the men were forced as teenagers to fight for one of the rebel factions in the Angolan civil war, before finding their way to the 32 Battalion – often joining up for no reason other than the fact that it guaranteed regular meals.
Gerrets cast veterans of the battalion as the 12 disciples of Jesus in the dramatised sections of the film where all roles are played by locals on location in Pomfret, magically transformed by his lens into the biblical landscape of Judea.
As the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and his betrayal unfold in beautifully staged and directed vignettes narrated by Biblical passages, Gerrets inserts interviews with the 12 veterans playing disciples, asking pointed and painful questions about their lives and actions.
These men know that they were used by white South Africa to fight champions of apartheid; they know they stand accused of rape, murder, and other atrocities; and they know that few people care about their pain.
These men know that they were used by white South Africa to fight champions of apartheid
Gerrets gives them the chance to examine their lives on camera; he literally gives them the chance of redemption that Christ offered the world. For men from deeply Catholic Angola, the confessional in a roofless ruin under the South African sun is a cathartic experience.
None try to overtly evade responsibility. They knew what they were doing and knew they had to follow orders or be shot. But that does not assuage the pain of guilt – whatever they say, it is written clearly on their expressions. Some claim they were never fighting against apartheid; others hope their souls will go directly to heaven when they die. Only one breaks down in tears after bluntly stating that there is «no meaning to life; I am just on a journey to death» before adding: «The suffering is too much, we suffer for nothing, nothing, nothing.»
These are men who know, that like Judas, they have betrayed. And they have been betrayed.
Gerrets film will not be to everyone’s taste: those who suffered at the hands of the 32 Battalion may not be ready to forgive. But for those with the perspective to look at the tragedy of the fall-out from the end of colonial rule in Africa, the story of these old and damaged men is a morality tale for the ages.
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