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100 minutes, 2004, South Africa Director/Producer: Ramadan Suleman; Producers: Jacques Bidou, Bhekizizwe Peterson, Marianne Dumoulin in English and Zulu with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
Opening shot: a woman is discovered passed out in her car. Next she is in an ambulance having a flashback to the time of South Africa’s State of Emergency 13 years ago, a period of maximum police repression. Third sequence: the woman, now in the hospital, assures her skeptical, deaf daughter that she will be recovered in time for her birthday. Fourth scene, she again slips into a flashback where she, a journalist accompanied by a photographer, documents a young student chased and shot by the police; her last word is Amandla! ‘the power is ours!’ This pattern of narrative interrupted by flashback continues throughout Zulu Love Letter* until finally the reporter, Thandeka Khumalo, succeeds in bringing these two narratives, the nightmare of the apartheid past and the hope of the new South Africa, together so to create a chance to move on with her life.
Thandeka or Thandi is a difficult heroine to like; in fact, she can be positively hateful because she is so full of hate and hurt. She has been an absent parent leaving her daughter Simangaliso or Mangi to be raised by her parents while she participated in politics and pursued her career as a journalist. Mangi was born deaf, probably as the result of torture Thandi received during five months in police custody while she was pregnant, yet 13 years later she still has not learned sign language to communicate with her daughter. She has divorced Thandi’s father, a sympathetic South African Indian named Moola and is carrying on an ephemeral affair with a younger man. She suffers from ‘writer’s block’ yet is contemptuous of her work mates, especially the “affirmative action snot-noses...who think that being black is a job description and that ‘the struggle’ refers to which cellular network they should subscribe to.”
Thandi’s barely suppressed rage is aimed not directly at white South Africans so much as those around her for not dwelling on what she and millions of others endured during the apartheid era. This was a deliberate amnesia structured into the South African ‘miracle,’ only partially mitigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Today we might even say Thandeka suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Her anger covers a deep emotional wound, which she needs to express publicly and mourn before it can even begin to be healed. She envies those who have been able to put the past behind them. Thandeka rebukes her former husband Moola, “I wish I could do what you are doing. Just change, find the hope, the newness.” She recognizes that as a reporter she has always distanced herself from her own story. “I’ve written and said so much about what is happening around me, now I need to write about what’s happened to me. This thing is so big, so frightening and no one knows where it will lead.”
The chance to bring her own past and present together presents itself soon after Thandeka leaves the hospital and returns to work. She is approached by Me’Tau, the aged mother of Dineo, the girl shot by the police 13 years before. She is still mourning for her daughter and wants to enlist Thandeka’s aid in finding Dineo’s remains for a proper burial. This means tracing the three policemen responsible for her death and the disposal of her remains. Me’Tau has already found one who runs a rural shop and denies any involvement. Meanwhile the three begin a campaign of intimidation to stop her search. First they leave a picture of Dineo at Me’Tau’s home as a warning. Then they run a car carrying Moola and Mangi off the road killing Moola while Mangi escapes uninjured. The film ends with the bodies of freedom fighters recovered from shallow graves receiving formal rites. There is no final settling of scores, there never can be for an atrocity like apartheid. But there is the beginning of recognition of the sacrifice made by so many, not just the deaths and torture, but the loss of personal lives, education, careers and innocence.
*A Zulu love letter or incuwadi yothando is a beadwork necklace; throughout the film Mangi is seen working on a collage which is her modern interpretation of this traditional art form.
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"In this richly evocative and compelling film, the director imaginatively picks through the haunting, psychic debris of South Africa’s political history. Juxtaposing personal and national struggles, past and present, loss and recovery, emotional distances and bridges, trauma and healing, this unsparing exploration of history’s often hidden recesses embodies women’s experiences as well as tenacious spirit and, remarkably, offers an intricate tapesty of hope."
Jude G. Akudinobi, University of California - Santa Barbara
"The film poses the question whether the past can easily be reconciled to the present when the nature of the present is still uncertain. An important film that is in search of what a South African film is or should be."
Ntongela Masilela, Pitzer College
"Films like In My Country have tried but failed to capture the complexity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the unfinished business of apartheid. Zulu Love Letter, a thoroughly South African film gets the closest by far."