The Other Man: F.W. de Klerk and The End of Apartheid
F.W. de Klerk
US DVD: 22 Sep 2015
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that so little time has passed since the end of apartheid era in South Africa. Those of us who lived through its final hours—whether because we were in South Africa, or we were in one of the many nations whose histories and futures were deeply entwined with that nation’s own, or we followed the new stories closely—might characterize the that cruel law’s end as “suddenly, then all at once”. History shows us, however, that the end of apartheid was much more nuanced. This documentary, directed by Nicolas Rossier, attempts to examine the story of the man who made way for apartheid’s end and for Nelson Mandela to enjoy the glory that he so richly deserved.
The Other Man: F.W. de Klerk and The End of Apartheid, at times recalls Errol Morris’s The Fog of War: Controversial figure looks back at the most controversial time in his life and considers his victories and his errors. That kind of thing. But The Other Man isn’t Fog of War, and de Klerk isn’t Robert S. McNamara. That has proven to be both an asset and a weakness.
As material, this moment in history is fascinating—the end of apartheid is beside the end of communism in Eastern Europe as among the most important events at the end of the last century. The problem is that this struggle and its history, as morally outraging as it is, doesn’t tend to translate to uninformed American audiences that well. Yes, there is real and undeniable tragedy in that statement. It seems that for many in the US the idea of apartheid and its realities is as far removed from their lives as the pharaohs or William McKinley’s foreign policy.
Perhaps it’s because Americans live in a nation that still grapples with its own past racial complications, or because their complicated relationship with race continues to become more complex. Why worry about another nation’s need to reconcile its own past in these matters? There, too, it might be down to the way that some Americans tend to isolate themselves, to focus on concerns of the familiar and to dismiss Africa as that place of the exotic, that faraway land that is simply too much a burden to think about. Do most Americans even understand the complexities that led to the arrival of apartheid and its reign over South Africa?
Thus, the film is fighting an uphill battle in its attempt to find viewership among the general, and uninformed audiences in America. Those of who do care about these issues will find de Klerk’s recollections about how he helped engineer the end of his own political career fascinating, if a bit hard to believe at times. Others have noted that de Klerk and other white South Africans are given too broad a pass on the moral implications of apartheid and that the film’s tendency to not ask tougher questions renders it closer to a de Klerk highlight reel than a true investigation of history.
This critic will offer no argument against those claims, and most thinking people might begin to balk or gag at the notion that history is being (forgive the term) whitewashed. No film could capture the full detail of the suffering endured under the law of apartheid and this one certainly doesn’t. Nor does de Klerk so much emphasize the real tragedy of the times as he does bask in the victory brought about by that time (allegedly) passing. To be sure, this is a delicate line to walk and more often than not this picture teeters rather than strides through those terms.
For a film that clearly desires an international audience, it sometimes assumes too much of its viewers—even educated ones—and asks them to fill in some of the back story in a way that would be difficult for those without a nuanced understanding of South African history. This, too, is a delicate balance, and one might argue that director Rossier fails by degrees rather than in large scale; he succeeds in reminding us that this story is more complicated than we might assume, and yet he fails to convince viewers how important the fate of South Africa may be to the fate of other nations.
Still, for those seeking at least an introduction to this unique story, and for those willing to read beyond the confines of the film, this is an OK starting point, even if some will question the director’s intentions.
DVD extras include a featurette examining the 20 years that have passed since the end of apartheid, featuring Thabo Mbeki, Max Dupree and F.W. de Klerk; also included is de Klerk’s “Quantum Leap” speech from February 1990, and street interviews about the legacy of de Klerk and Mandela.