Struggle doccies an awakening

Award-winning filmmaker Enver Samuel. | SEAN BRAND

Award-winning filmmaker Enver Samuel. | SEAN BRAND

Published Apr 13, 2024


Durban — By telling stories of murdered anti-apartheid activists through the eyes of their children, an award-winning documentary filmmaker’s production depicts their pain, suffering and frustration at how the perpetrators got off the hook with little or no consequences.

Enver Samuel’s Truth Be Told, a six-part documentary series, which is scheduled for a rerun on SABC, brings into focus the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work and the corresponding action – or lack of it – from the National Prosecuting Authority.

Two of the KwaZulu-Natal-linked documentaries are set for screening at Durban’s Bat Centre on April 26, as part of the KZN Film Commission’s Freedom Day and 30 years of democracy celebrations.

For the sake of impact and effect, Samuel told the stories “through the eyes” of fallen heroes’ and heroines’ children.

“I wanted unique angles for my stories. I didn’t want to tell historical stories, which would have appealed to a narrow audience.

“Younger audiences were shocked at how much they didn’t know about their history. It was an awakening for some,” he said.

The first instalment in the series is Breastfeeding Warrior, which delves into the activism of 23-year-old Phila Portia Ndwandwe from KZN, who was tortured and killed in 1988 by security police.

Thabang Mabuza, son of Phila Portia Ndwande. Picture: Supplied

Ndwandwe’s son, Thabang Mabuza, who was only five months old at the time, relates the transgenerational trauma of his mother’s death.

Archival footage from Ndwandwe’s exhumation and TRC coverage are also used with good effect.

An inquest was opened in 2022, but Mabuza – now a chartered accountant with a renowned accounting firm – is still searching for answers as to why his mother was killed. His dilemma is whether her death was in vain.

The Bones of Memory is the story of Ntombikayise Kubheka, a member of the then-banned ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK).

Kubheka, who was 41 and believed to be the ANC’s KwaMashu branch leader, was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1987. Ten years later, during the TRC Amnesty process, the location of her dumped body was revealed.

While it reopened old wounds, her family was able to give her a proper funeral. Khubeka’s daughter, Thuli, now 40, continues to grapple with life minus her mother.

Thuli, who lives with her young child in a one-room outhouse in KwaMashu, also ponders whether her mother died in vain.

Thuli Kubheka, daughter of Ntombi Kubheka

Samuel’s interest in making documentaries began in 2014 when he learnt about the fate of another activist, Ahmed Timol, resulting in the 2015 documentary Indians Can’t Fly.

Authorities claimed Timol had jumped from the then John Vorster Square in Johannesburg in 1971.

This was disproved in 2017 when an inquest concluded that he was tortured and pushed through a window by police. That year, Samuel made Someone to Blame, which focused on the inquest.

His critically acclaimed Murder in Paris revealed the layers of deceit, complicity and hidden agendas in the unsolved 1988 murder of ANC activist Dulcie September in the French capital. The production landed 15 awards, including Best Documentary at the 2021 Durban International Film Festival.

Samuel also received a Human Rights Award for, “documenting the lives of South African human rights legends and unearthing the need for a thorough investigation into the deaths of assassinated political leaders” from Amnesty International’s local branch.

Before making documentaries, Samuel had a long association with the TV industry as a producer and director of content.

Director Enver Samuel (seated) and cameraman Nathan Rice interviewing Thuli Kubheka in KwaMashu. Picture: Supplied

He had earned a bursary to study film and TV production in Australia, returned to South Africa in 1994 when he was thrown into the industry’s “deep-end”.

“I was fortunate to land the bursary, and the training and exposure I received there enabled me to hit the ground running when I returned.”

He started as a producer/director on the Good Morning SA show, now Morning Live.

Samuel was a content director in big format reality TV shows like Survivor, MasterChef, Come Dine With Me and My Kitchen Rules.

He also travelled the world doing travel shows.

But he realised his calling after working on the Timol story.

Indians Can’t Fly was his first step away from my conventional doings.

“I literally felt like my heart was going to burst after that one. I never had that sort of reaction to all the work I’d done before.”

He realised that this type of work made a difference, even though he only focused on six random families from the TRC yet there were thousands of stories that remained untold.

“Viewers will forget the other type of work I did the next day and it never changed anything. The reaction to the Timol documentary was very powerful, it was my cathartic moment.”

Forensic specialist Professor Steve Naidoo, who testified in the Ahmed Timol inquest, was involved in both documentaries produced on the subject by Enver Samuel.

Samuel’s previous TV exploits always made human interest the focus: “I knew how to tell a story that made people stand out.”

Samuel said his parents’ move into exile in the 1960s helped shape his world view. They initially went to England, then Ghana and Zambia.

In his latest series, six families opened the door to their pain and injustices, but there was no end to their suffering in sight.

“You question why so long. I’m no longer a casual observer, but I'm looking through the lens of their eyes”

Samuel said his wife (Karen Scholtz) questioned when his focus would switch to “something lighter” away from documentaries he has done over the past seven years.

“When you work on these types of stories, you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t impact you. I can’t switch off the light in my head and resume the normal way.

“I will continue what I started. There are so many stories to tell.”

Independent on Saturday