Meet the film-maker behind Action Kommandant
Gasant Abarder spoke to Nadine Cloete, who has won acclaim for her documentary telling the story of young anti-apartheid fighter Ashley Kriel.
Cape Town - It was in 1987, the year film-maker Nadine Cloete was born, that a security policeman brutally murdered anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel. Exactly 29 years later this year, Nadine has immortalised in film his sacrifice in the Struggle for a free South Africa.
So committed was she to ensuring his story was told, that she devoted a third of her life to producing Action Kommandant - the Untold Story of Revolutionary Freedom Fighter Ashley Kriel.
The film has been showed to seven sold-out screenings at this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival. Action Kommandant won the festival’s audience award for Best South African Film.
I was lucky enough to get a seat to the South African premiere and was among many of Ashley’s contemporaries and peers from Bonteheuwel and beyond.
In the film, Nadine uses them and Ashley’s closest family as the devices to tell his story. It is a gripping account that has light moments as it moves from his early years as a 13-year-old upstart, primary school activist, fighting for textbooks, to leaving you outraged at his untimely death.
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But the most poignant showing was Thursday’s free June 16 screening in Bonteheuwel, where Ashley grew up and inspired the youth to embrace the spirit of Soweto 1976, and where he became a thorn in the side of the apartheid apparatus.
Nadine will go to great lengths to make sure Ashley’s story is shared. When I called her on Wednesday to ask her to write a piece documenting Ashley’s life for our special edition June 16 Cape Argus, to commemorate 40 years of the 1976 uprisings, she dropped everything to oblige.
It was Nadine’s father who first told her about Ashley when she was a young girl.
“Going right back to when my dad was a history teacher, whenever we drove through Athlone he would mention the names of the activists who had been killed there.
“Ashley was one of those names, along with Coline Wiliams, Anton Fransch and Robbie Waterwich. Then you get to high school and you don’t hear these names again.
“Later I attended the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s Ashley Kriel memorial lecture as a student (while studying film at UCT) with Quinton Michaels, who features in the film. Quinton is a family friend and I didn’t know that he had this relationship with Ashley.”
But it was as a film student after the first time she saw footage of Ashley - the handsome young man with a mop of curly hair - that she would make a 10-year commitment to telling his story.
“When I started interning at Rainbow Circle Films, we had done a short documentary on Anton Fransch called Deafening Echoes, and we also produced a documentary of Coline called Winter’s July.
“They had archives on their drives and it was my job to go through the material. It was around 2005 or 2006 when I saw archive footage of Ashley for the first time.
“It was crazy because I had always heard the name and his name had been mentioned in other documentaries.
“To see that footage, something just struck me: his charisma and his passion. Although the footage was short, you got a sense of the man.”
Also read: Ashley Kriel's tale finally hits home
The family reported after the premiere that many people had come and gone, after showing initial interest in telling Ashley’s story. But it was a shy, reserved Nadine - barely older than Ashley was at the height of his activism - who stayed the course.
She skilfully captures his youthful exuberance, courage, mischievous streak and leadership qualities to bring him to life in this epic biopic.
Ashley is so real to the viewer that towards the end of the film you want to yank him by the shoulders and urge him to leave the safe house in Athlone where he had overstayed his sanctuary and where he would eventually be killed after returning from exile.
It cost Nadine well over a R1 million, over a decade, using her own resources, and several trips to Bonteheuwel and even Lesotho, where Ashley made his first step into exile before eventually becoming an Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier, to make Action Kommandant.
But it’s clear that Ashley’s surviving siblings think the world of her.
“It’s one of those projects where your research never ends. So you start the project and it’s going to go one way, then you keep meeting new people.
“It’s also one of those things where suddenly Ashley had 10 best friends so you really have to do your research about who were close to him.”
Nadine was 22 when she started production.
“The first thing we did when I met the family, because they wanted to know who I was, was to sit in the kitchen with his sisters Michel and Melanie. We just had a talk. I knew some people who introduced them to me.
“I don’t know how serious they took me because they were a little hesitant, I guess. The thing they wanted to know was who I was. We just had a normal conversation and it obviously got to Ashley towards the end. It’s that thing about people wanting to know who you are.
“Peter Jacobs (former MK activist and now the head of crime intelligence in SAPS in the Western Cape) and Ashley Forbes had a long discussion with me before I even filmed, and afterwards actually.
“For a lot of people it wasn’t easy. People called me and told me they were having dreams about Ashley before the interviews. It wasn’t just interviewing someone about something, it was really emotional and almost traumatising.
“I think at the beginning of the project, when I started filming, it was difficult because I felt guilty. People get emotional and I put them in that space. But at the same time it was people feeling really strongly that the story needs to be told.”
But what means the world to Nadine is how Ashley’s peers have received the film. She was very conscious about over-dramatising his life and keeping the story authentic.
In the process, she has forged strong ties with the community of Bonteheuwel and Ashley’s closest allies and family.
“When I met Kathy Aranes and Henriette Abrahams (Ashley’s friends and comrades) in a social environment, it was Henriette that said she was so happy it was one of our people telling the story, and it was that one thing that kept me going.
“I felt like it needed to be told and I feel like I’m part of that community that Ashley was trying to conscientise.
“I didn’t feel like an outsider looking in. I really felt like an insider, but trying to understand it more. That was the difference. It wasn’t some production company or foreign people telling the story. I felt that a level of commitment had been made and I didn’t want to drop the ball.
“I was very surprised by what Ashley’s contemporaries said speaking to me afterwards. One called me sister - that means a lot to me.
“I was very conscious about keeping the film as intimate and personal as possible and not about interviewing the Trevor Manuels, but keeping it about the people closest to Ashley.”
Towards the end of the project, Nadine had to foot some hefty bills for archive material from news wire agencies, in particular. There is some never-before-seen footage of Ashley’s funeral in the film, for example, that drives home the wanton disrespect the apartheid authorities had. It will literally leave you breathless and at the edge of your seat.
Philanthropist and media owner Dr Iqbal Survé, who owns the Cape Argus, bankrolled the remainder of the project because he believed, like Nadine, that Ashley’s story simply had to be told.
“I had a lot of meetings where people wanted to contribute, but they just didn’t follow through. When the request for a meeting was made by him, I thought, I don’t know about this.
“He just on the spot confirmed he would fund (what Nadine needed) to complete the film. He said it so calmly!
“There have been projects where I did my own camera work. But because of the emotion I didn’t want to do my own camera work because your mind is just in too many places.
“The first camera person was Christopher Wessels, and he was great. He said, You know what, let’s just start’. There were other people who wanted to co-produce with me, but came off the project because it wasn’t making money and it wasn’t sustainable for them.
“I had to take on other work, but the crazy thing is that whenever I did, it would go back into the Kriel thing. I’m teaching Afrikaans part-time and I have to mark later today, because the marks are due tomorrow, but that’s the reality of it.”
What Nadine has achieved, where skilled storytellers may have failed, is to make Ashley Kriel’s life - and death - matter. It is a story that needs to be shared over and over and that is Nadine’s next challenge - taking Ashley’s story to audiences far and wide.
Read more: Ashley embodied the spirit of 1976
For now, she is pleased that her film is being screened in the year of the 40th anniversary of the student uprising of 1976. Ashley, she says, embodied the very spirit of Soweto of ‘76.
But she also believes the story of coloured activists and their contribution to our fight for freedom must never be underestimated and it is a lesson to the youth of today.
“History is so closely linked to identity. As a person of colour your identity has been messed with. Your language has been colonised. Your history? You’ve been lied to about it - just about everything.
“The story of Ashley, his comrades and the youth was something I took really personally because I felt I didn’t know about this. All I see about myself are these negative images. I felt like this story is important because it puts our people in a very positive light; that we are heroes and warriors, not drug addicts and gangsters, which is the main image that is pushed.
“That’s why I really liked Ashley’s mother’s interview in the film (an audio recording by veteran journalist Zubeida Jaffer) because she speaks the way she speaks.
“If you speak Afrikaans in a certain way you’re looked down upon, but why can’t the way people speak be treated with dignity? That’s why I treated the interview in that way.
“She is a hero in her own right as well.”
But so is Nadine - a youth hero in her own right.
* Gasant Abarder is the editor of the Cape Argus.