Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: ‘Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me’ review

An unapologetically personal open letter to the former South African president, Khalo Matabane’s Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me (2014) is a sincere but ultimately dated piece, made as it was before Mandela’s death last year. Referred to throughout in the present tense – and not simply for the timeless legacy he looks set to leave behind – we gain little deeper understanding of the man nor his ideals than have already been offered up by a myriad of other projects both old and new. Those asked to throw in their two cents about the impact Mandela had upon both apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa appear informed, but the outpouring of admiration loses its freshness around the halfway mark.

At the time of Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990, director Matabane was an idealistic and easily influenced teen with grand hopes for the future of his beloved nation. Finding himself approaching adulthood in a post-apartheid era of improved civil rights and wishful optimism, South Africa suddenly seemed like a different place entirely. Framing his heartfelt film with an imaginary letter to “Madiba”, and bolstered by interviews with leading politicians, activists, intellectuals and cultural figures (several of whom also appear in Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down), Matabane looks to interrogate the cuddly, Spice Girl-hugging image that Mandela was prescribed in his later years, remembering the passionate freedom fighter who famously said he would die for his held beliefs.

Caught between being an introverted account of Mandela’s influence on one young South African, whilst at the same time looking to provide an overview of Madiba’s early life, imprisonment and eventual rise to power, The Myth & Me unfortunately finds itself more preoccupied with legend than truth. Those chosen to speak about the great man are largely in the fervent admirer camp, with former US Secretary of State Colin Powell going as far as to hail his qualities as a warrior (after expertly dodging the question of whether the US government, at any time, had seen Mandela as a terrorist). Matabane’s dreamlike documentary is full of such moments, constantly attempting to find balance before shrinking back into the comfort zone of reverence. Its naivety is initially endearing but does becomes irksome, especially when Mandela’s international influence is reduced to the sight of several thousand drunken British teens bouncing around in Wembley Stadium during the 1988 Free Nelson Mandela concert. Like Live Aid and its predecessor Live8, it’s difficult to ascertain how many of those in the crowd knew – or even cared about – the liberation cause in question.

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.

Daniel Green