Rehad Desai, film director, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2014/02/07

Diane de Beer

For director Rehad Desai the unfolding of the Marikana massacre when 34 miners were shot and the detailed story his documentary tells have become a lightning rod for many South Africans horrified at this tragedy happening in our country.

Capturing the unrolling of the miners’ strike, being at the right place at the right time, was the result of a global story he was researching on mining. He had selected this particular mine because of the Bafakeng and the black empowerment model that seemed unique.

The brief was wide open and he had looked at other countries, Mozambique, Brazil and Zimbabwe, among others, but this was where he decided to go. Then the strike broke out and the unimaginable happened.

Capturing the events from beginning to end became crucial because if there’s one thing Desai understands, it is the way a story is spun and the way memory is flawed once the actual events fade away.

“We forget how the violence began and how stories are manipulated,” he says. But when the story is told in pictures, it’s difficult to ignore the facts as they play out in front of your eyes – vividly.

One of the most powerful moments in the documentary is right at the start when the miners meet the management and are handed a stack of forms to read.

The spokesperson poignantly asks whether they think that if the miners were literate, they would be working on the mines. There couldn’t be a harsher indictment from whichever way you view the incident, because from the start, what the miners sought to do was to talk.

And while Desai is always very clear that he is telling the story from the miners’ point of view, it’s the power of the pictures, the way the story plays out with real lives, that is so frightening. There’s nothing the filmmaker could manipulate here. He didn’t have to.

Another moment of horror for the miners, which is shown quite clearly, is how surprised they are by the racial demographic and attitude of the police. “They couldn’t believe that they were being discounted by their own,” explains Desai.

He’s also crystal clear about his feelings and how he perceives the Marikana massacre. “It’s about the illusions of democracy,” he says. When people have a monopoly on violence and when premeditated plans are later questioned and those queries simply ignored or pushed aside, it negates everything we stand for as a country.

It is about the pictures, the way the story is pieced together when watching Miners Shot Down, that’s important. Most of us, when all of this played out, had trouble keeping abreast with what was happening. And once it disappears off the front pages the story often goes dark.

Desai is determined that this won’t happen by shouting as often and as hard as he can and screening his documentary to the people who matter most – the miners.

With the miners’ strike seemingly an endless nightmare and no end in sight, he has used the documentary to drum up support and is also the spokesman for the Marikana Support Campaign.

“People have been so generous,” he says, and he is especially proud that his film has become a rallying cry.

The documentary has won acclaim across the world, travelling to festivals including the biggest human rights festival and Movies that Matter, winning prizes as fast as it could travel.

“It stands up as a film,” says Desai, and that makes him proud, but he also believes the world is rooting for South Africa and Africa. “There’s hope out there and they don’t want to see us fail.”

And that is also his fight.

“We achieved our democracy at great odds and that’s been etched in people’s memories,” he says. This documentary tells a different story but reminds us that what we gained should be fought for and not forgotten. “It’s a hard film to watch,” says the artist, “but harsh as it is, we need to be involved as a nation.”

He is also hoping that the slate of screenings, favourable reviews and rewards from across the world will persuade the film council deciding on funding to provide him with future funds. “I tick all the boxes,” he says and still the money was denied.

He is also determined that all of the evidence be heard around the Marikana massacre and nothing be excluded. It cannot be slanted in any way is his belief. He will be shouting loudest – and not only through this movie, but perhaps that remains his most powerful tool. You cannot watch the story being told and not be moved and changed.

That he believes is the role of the artist, to be a mirror for society and to hold everyone accountable.