Documentaries are on the rise. According to a 2013 Economist article, 16 percent of the films shown at the Cannes Film Festival are documentaries. Thousands of documentaries are made globally each year about every subject under the sun. One reason for this rise may be that audiences these days have a need for facts; they are unable to trust government or their own communities, so they turn to something they know as truth. Documentaries sometimes reveal deeper reasons for human action that people crave.
With this high demand for truth and documentaries, themes are bound to appear. Looking at those themes globally can provide an even deeper human connection than the documentaries themselves.
The United States is in racial turmoil. Whose Streets? I am Not Your Negro, The 13th, OJ: Made In America, and The Central Park Five are just a few of the more recent race-focused documentaries to come out of the United States.
Every day on the news there are stories of police brutality against African-Americans. And race plays a part in stories where African-Americans aren’t involved. When a middle-aged white man killed more than 50 people in Las Vegas, the incident was quickly labeled a mass shooting rather than terrorism simply because the shooter was white.
In the United States protests and social movements promoting racial equality erupt every day. It is easy to get lost in personal feelings and forget that racial inequality is operating on a much larger scale than just the United States. It is especially hard to imagine such inequality and racial tension in Africa.
Teleport to South Africa, rewind 30 years and you have apartheid. Apartheid was the systematic segregation of whites and blacks in South Africa after it gained its independence. White people were in the minority; World War II and the Great Depression had devastating economic effects on the country. To combat this, the white minority decided to harden its legislation on the segregation of the black majority. Although apartheid ended in the 1990s and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, there is still racial tension in South Africa, similar to that felt in the U.S.
That tension is apparent when one considers South Africa is still in the economic grips of Apartheid. A 2016 New York Times article entitled Raw Tensions over Race Fester in South Africa said the unemployment rate for blacks in South Africa is 28.8 percent while the white unemployment rate is around 5.9 percent.
Nadine Angel Cloete is a black documentary filmmaker from Cape Town, South Africa who released her first feature-length film in 2016. It is called Action Kommandant and tells the story of Ashley Kriel, a freedom fighter during apartheid. A documentfilmfestival.org spotlight article says, “This captivating biopic offers a necessary confrontation with South Africa’s fraught past that finds particular relevance today as a new generation of young activists – both in South Africa and beyond – demand historical redress.”
Action Kommandant uses archival footage, animation, and intimate stories told by Kriel’s friends and family. It aims to show people what the anti-apartheid movement looked like through the 80s and 90s. It has gone on to win the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival Audience Award.
After Action Kommandant’s screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, Cloete discussed how important it was that her film was screened at SIFF.
“The Seattle International Film Festival is one of those festivals that have a special African content section so they make it a point to have African films at their festival. I could watch a film from Senegal, for example,” Cloete said. “This kind of platform gives you a clearer understanding of what’s going in that country especially when made by someone from that place. It also challenges stereotypes about the African continent.”
Right now Action Kommandant is not screening in the United States.
This is an important time for documentaries. Parallels can be drawn from all across the globe, tiny little strings connecting all of us.