Thuli Madonsela and former President Jacob Zuma. 'Whispering Truth to Power' tracks the work of South Africa's first female public protector, Madonsela, as she builds her corruption case against President Jacob Zuma, which effectively led to his resignation. Picture: YouTube/Screengrab

When Shameela Seedat's Whispering Truth to Power debuts in South Africa this week at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival it's bound to elicit strong reaction as it takes a look at former public protector Thuli Madonsela. 

In her first feature-length documentary, the human rights lawyer turned filmmaker tracks the work of South Africa's first female public protector, as she builds her corruption case against President Jacob Zuma, which effectively led to his resignation earlier this year. 

Seedat's 86-minute film on the last year in office of Madonsela was recently awarded the Special Jury Prize at the prestigious Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto on May 4. In their praise for the film, the jury said "it's a timely portrait of a … public servant who uses her office for good at a pivotal moment in South African politics.” 

Former human rights lawyer Shameela Seedat directed 'Whispering Truth to Power'. Picture: Supplied

Formal filming of the doccie started back in February 2016, on the turbulent eve of the Constitutional Court showdown between opposition parties and Zuma around the Nkandla debacle. Seedat continued filming throughout the year until Madonsela’s last day in office, ending with the release of her "State Capture" report - which probed allegations of collusion with and undue interference from the Gupta family. 

Says Seedat, “I am really eager to see how the film will play out in its home country. By trying to weave in various layers of a complex reality, the film may not quite be what many viewers expect,” adding, "I always gravitated to story telling and drifted towards documentaries." 

Seedat worked for 15 years as a lawyer and says that her interested was sparked in making a film about Madonsela because of the passion she displays. "And when a bunch of producers approached me about making a film about her that was just the beginning." 

But Seedat admits making the film was by no means plain sailing. "My first challenge was that the logistics of actually making film was extremely difficult - we'd go to her office in Pretoria and she wasn't there. "But my inner instincts then were to make an observational film where you just film her going about her life rather than conducting interviews and that worked. So we did this and just took a step backwards to watch the dynamics of her office."

The year she made the film, she says, was a critical time as it was the end of Madonsela's term. "Right until her last day she was fighting off interdicts and the film is not a conventional documentary. We managed to piece together a profile and observing her story is actually a heart-warming experience." 

Seedat continues, "The film aims to pull people in to engage them in a robust conversation. We also looked at her daughter who was a student and the issue of how she fought for deeper change in the universities and the generational fight. So it's not just about corruption but about the complexities of politics and inequality in many senses of the word in this country. 

"So yes it's all of that - I'd describe it as a confrontational film but dealing with some of those issues in a nuanced way."  

Seedat is well-equipped to make such a film - she's a former Fulbright scholar governance specialist and worked for the South African Constitutional Court and, among others, has also consulted for the South African parliament, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and Global Integrity. 

She's published widely on human rights and democratic accountability and has addressed the Parliament of the DRC, the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, the International Civil Forum against Corruption in Indonesia and South Africa’s National Anti-Discrimination forum. 

Since she turned to film-making in 2010, she has produced a large body of commissioned work as director, producer, researcher and scriptwriter. Her director credits include narrative documentaries for CGTN’s Faces of Africa series and as a producer she won many awards for the doccie Shahrazad. 

Seedat says the film was a tough journey, but much like the subject of her film, Madonsela, who was lauded for doing a great service to her country, Seedat is doing the same, in offering greater insights into our very own warrior woman.

* Whispering Truth to Power will open the Encounters South African Film Festival on Thursday May 31 at Cinema Nouveau V&A. It will be repeated on Monday June 4 at The Labia at 8.15 pm and on Saturday June 9 at Cinema Nouveau at V&A at 8pm. 

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