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73 minutes, 2006,  
Writer/Director: Thomas Allen Harris

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Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A Son’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes is Thomas Allen Harris’ bittersweet eulogy to his stepfather, Benjamin Pule Leinaeng (Lee) and to the thousands of other South Africans who went into exile to keep the freedom struggle alive during the harshest years of apartheid. Through the stories of 12 young comrades from Bloemfontein, this film shows how over 30 years the African National Congress (ANC) built a successful worldwide movement which eventually toppled the white supremacist regime. At the same time it provides a unique, intimate look at the painful trade-offs between public and private lives which almost all the political activists and their families experience.

The film offers viewers who have come of age since the anti-apartheid movement with a concise overview of the ANC’s protracted but ultimately successful struggle: from the Defiance Campaign against the hated pass laws, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the arrest of Mandela in 1962 and much of the ANC leadership in 1963, the 1976 Soweto uprising, the State of Emergency in the 1980s and finally Mandela’s release from prison in 1989 and the triumph of majority rule. All this is set against the background of the Pan-African Movement with its hopes for the newly independent African states, the rise of black nationalism in the United States and the dream of a shared identity among all people of the African descent.

The film focuses on Lee’s own tortuous path: his harrowing escape from South Africa in 1960 to Tanzania as one of the first group of young ANC activists to go into exile, the military training of his comrades in Cuba and his own study of journalism in East Germany and the United States. Eventually Lee is pivotal in setting up a New York office for the ANC, finds work as an anti-apartheid radio producer at the U.N. and marries an African American with two sons, the director and his brother. The stress and depression of exile, however, precipitate a long battle with alcohol which ultimately kills him but not before he can return to a free South Africa.

The film also offers the director, Thomas Allen Harris, a chance to come to a final reconciliation with a step father he had sometimes rejected. “He had raised me since I was nine years old, yet I had never called him father. I realized I had followed Lee: I had become a political journalist; I had become a filmmaker, I have a revolutionary attitude towards my work.”

Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela provides a rare inside look into the organizational and psychological dynamics of liberation movements in general and the ANC in particular. At the same time its poignant story of the bonds between a son and his father strained by our politically turbulent times has universal resonance.

Thomas Allen Harris is a director, producer and writer whose documentary films, multimedia installations, and experimental videos have been broadcasted and featured internationally on television, at festivals, museums, and galleries. He is the recipient of several international awards and has received grants and fellowships from the Sundance Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. Harris' films include É Minha Cara/That's My Face, and Vintage-Families of Value.

Lesson Plans for your classroom from P.O.V.

(A production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in association with P.O.V./ The American Documentary and the National Black Programming Consortium.)
"A fascinating glimpse not just of the early campaigns of the ANC, but also of the way childhood memories can obscure larger truths."
New York Times
"For audiences only vaguely aware of the details of the ANC’s gestation and Nelson Mandela’s place in the organization this work places the rocky details in detailed context. More knowledgeable viewers will appreciate the rare footage and clippings unearthed by Harris."
"Harris’ trademark elegant visual style is put into the service of dramatic recreations that flesh out documentary commentary from old friends and political allies while family photos and home video become potent artifacts in the transformation of grief into celebration."
LA Weekly
"Here’s something of a miracle: an intensely personal yet historically expansive docudrama that exhibits few of the deficits of genre mixing or cinematic self-analysis. As if that weren’t enough the humane, aesthetically assured film all but rescues the early anti-apartheid movement from death by deification."
Time Out, New York
"A deeply personal portrait of a father-son relationship that also details the important historical journey of twelve fearless revolutionaries."


Gerald Horne reviews Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela

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