Apartheid, up close and personal

Two filmmakers produce heart-rending HBO documentary; 'The Beast' is good 'news'

When apartheid ended in the early '90s, South African society had to come to terms with a history of severe racial oppression. White-against-black, black-against-white, and black-against-black violence stretching back 40 years could not be swept under the rug. So in order to allow the truth to come to light, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed. Perpetrators of violence could apply for amnesty in exchange for their testimony. Not all who asked for amnesty received it.

A new heart-rending documentary, Long Night's Journey into Day (HBO, June 11, 8-9:45 p.m.), takes up four of the 7,000 cases investigated over two years by the TRC, which officially ended its investigations only last week. Filmmakers Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann interviewed policemen, journalists, victims, and rebels, and interspersed them with newsreel footage, meetings between perpetrators' and victims' families, and interviews with commission members.

The Oscar-nominated film begins with the 1993 murder of American Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl, an idealist who had gone to fight the apparatus of apartheid, only to be dragged from her car and stabbed by four young black men. Amazingly, Amy's parents traveled to South Africa to support amnesty for her killers.

The meeting between Linda Biehl, her mother, and the mother of one of the young men responsible is captured on tape. It's a scene of profound sympathy and dignity.

We also hear from Eric Taylor, a white former security officer, who is tormented by the part he played in killing the black young activists called the "Cradock 4."

In another case, Robert McBride of the African National Congress is ultimately given amnesty for a car bomb that killed three young white women.

The last story concerns a young black policeman, Thapelo Mbelo, who begs forgiveness of the mothers whose sons he killed in a black township. Some of the women just can't, but one of them gives an inspired rebuke followed by her forgiveness. Her words in the midst of so much grief and hatred underscore the TRC's real reason for being.

"We chose the stories that represented the kinds of moral issues the TRC was grappling with and also had a universality about them," said Ms. Reid in a recent interview.

Should a truth and reconciliation commission have been formed after World War II with the Nazis? Is a TRC the way we should handle the aftermath of oppression in the future?

"Those are the exact questions that compelled us to make the film," Reid says. "The TRC was venturing on new ground.... The Nuremberg Trials [of Nazis] were important, but they didn't bring about closure or reconciliation.... Those men were defending themselves - there was no reflection on what they did. And that's what we see over and over again with the history of brutality."

If revenge is your primary goal, you're never going to get past that dichotomy of victim and perpetrator, Reid says. Those who worked on the commission agree that dealing with the past in a peaceful way help create a future free from hatred and vengeance.

"The Biehls did not want revenge. They had a very different response, and the mother whose son killed Amy had so much empathy for the Biehls and remorse that her son had done this," Reid says.

But nobody expected the hearings to succeed completely.

"As [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu says in the film, the TRC was about promoting reconciliation, not achieving it," Reid says.

The surprisingly inventive new series The Beast (ABC, beginning June 13, 10-11 p.m.), which turns its lens on a 24-hour broadcast news organization, is good "news" for TV viewers.

The pilot episode introduces the World News Service (WNS), aka "The Beast" (because it must be constantly fed). It's owned and run by a media mogul whose sensational approach to the news includes filming his own news team and streaming their antics onto the Internet 24/7. Mogul Jackson Burns (Frank Langella at his creepy best) believes this will keep his reporters honest and the public fully informed.

He courts ace reporter Alice Allenby (Elizabeth Mitchell), who despises what she sees as voyeurism and sensationalism in broadcast. But she is promised world-class access to resources and freedom beyond her wildest dreams, and dives in to cover the live execution of a murderer - whose consent is gained for a truly icky price. How far will one go to "get the story," that's the ethical problem.

Then, too, is it moral to televise executions?

The moving camera is almost as hyperactive as in "West Wing." Everyone talks fast, and the viewer is bombarded with information about a juicy ethical issue at the story's core - a la Aaron Sorkin. But while the show doesn't explore these issues exhaustively, it at least suggests persuasively that there are two sides (and sometimes more) to every one of them.

"I wasn't drawn to [the newsroom] because of any passion for the media or even a desire to critique it," says executive producer and creator Kario Salem about his drama-comedy. "I thought it would be an interesting prism through which to examine the culture, and I was looking for a paradigm unlike a cop or a law or a medical show - the triumvirate of serial television."

He had seen a behind-the-scenes documentary about "60 Minutes" - in which an argument between Mike Wallace and executive producer Don Hewitt erupted over the subject of bias in reporting. Mr. Salem found it exciting. It started him thinking about ethical issues in a new way. He wanted to bring poetic insight to what reporters do and how they do it.

"By turning the cameras around, in the case of Hewitt and Wallace," Salem says, "I saw the humanity and passion in their argument, which made me pay more acute attention to the story they were telling."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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