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Director Rehad Desai talks about the making of the documentary Miners Shot Down

In August 2012, mineworkers in one of South Africa’s biggest platinum mines began a wildcat strike for better wages. Six days into the strike, the police used live ammunition to suppress the group, killing 34 and injuring 78. The Marikana Commission of Inquiry has been sitting since October 2012 and is due to conclude on 30 September. The events that took place and the parties involved present a dark picture of South Africa 20 years after democracy.

The documentary, Miners Shot Down, charts the chronology of events leading up to the killings, and presents an alternate narrative to the one being claimed by authorities in power. Without sentimentality or bias, filmmaker and activist Rehad Desai has created a important visual record of this tragic incident, as well as a brutally honest exposé of the power relations and collusion of state and capitalism in post-apartheid ‘democratic’ South Africa.

Miners Shot Down was awarded Best South African Documentary at the recent Durban International Film Festival. Currently, there is a campaign running to have the documentary shown on free-to-air TV so that more people can know the truth of what happened at Marikana. Rehad spoke to us about the making of the film…

Rehad Desai

Rehad Desai

How did your extensive experience in advocacy filmmaking prepare you for the making of the ‘Miners Shot Down’ documentary?  

Nothing could have prepared me for the carnage that the massacre caused on a personal and political level. With the benefit of hindsight I was greatly assisted by my deep involvement with the miners that began with providing concrete solidarity whilst they continued with their strike and then through assisting the minority union AMCU obtain legal representation in the commission of inquiry and, through this union, families of the slain miners. This process soon led me to understand the need to produce a counter narrative to that of the police that was and still is claiming self-defence.    

The documentary essentially presents the chronological sequence of events in the Marikana massacre  – can you please tell us about the role and importance of storytelling for you in your work and in particular this documentary…  

After a few documentaries you quickly realise the importance of filmic conviction, also called dramaturgy. This was a big story that needed to be accessible not only to all South Africans but the wider world. Context was critical, but context and the information that you need to relay can also weigh down narrative pace. Getting the right balance in the first 25  minutes or so was critical. Experience allowed me to run or foreground through real-time story telling the archive and shot footage from the days in the run-up to the massacre, allowing us to show rather than tell much of the story. Careful editing of these various sources of footage is what made the film gripping and able to garner numerous awards.    

How did you go about uncovering/gaining access to use the security footage, private email correspondence and at-the-scene documentation?  

Persistence, determination and stamina. It must be said that all the security footage and police footage used was obtained through the commission of inquiry that once exhibited entered the public domain and was therefore accessible. The challenge was going through the scores of gigabytes of footage. In addition, battling to get into and obtain permission to use the TV archive took considerable work.

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Please tell us about the process of putting the documentary together…  

We shot for fifty days – interviews and visual material  – filmed for 250 days at the commission of inquiry and collected all the shot footage from the seven days leading to the massacre.  The project was 19TB in size. We edited for 8 months and used 5 editors in total, each of them bringing different skills and strengths to the film.

The events that took place at Marikana are described as the “first post-apartheid massacre” on the film website. As a filmmaker who is concerned with social rights, do you see these events as reflecting broader realities in our society? 

Absolutely, our former revolutionary nationalists have decided to side with the capitalist class – this class has now taken over the ANC and wields it for its own purposes.

The documentary ends on an incomplete and somewhat hopeless note with murder charges laid against the strike leaders and evasiveness on the part of government officials in excerpts from the inquiry. How might future developments inform the story you’ve told?

The film ends with a song which states that the police who killed Mambush are shaking in their boots. The massacre failed to break the strike, the workers in a tremendously brave manner continued with their strike and won significant pay increases. The NUM has been dislodged and a new militant union has taken its place. This is far from hopeless. Many exciting new developments have taken place in the SA political landscape due to Marikana, the emergence of the EFF and the break of NUMSA from COSATU are two significant developments. Marikana has laid bare the nature of SA’s transition of democracy.

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Where were you when you heard about what was going on at Marikana and what prompted you to take on this project?  

It was the events of August 13th,  by August I was there filming, I was busy with a film about the platinum sector, specifically the Bafokeng Nation and their success story when it came to BEE.    

As a filmmaker and storyteller, what role do you see yourself playing in our society?  

My role is to attempt to get people through the stories I choose to tell to reflect on events, and through reflecting ask the questions that hopefully lead to action. In short I aim to subvert the passivity of the medium, by making it active.    

Is the role of a storyteller important? Why?  

Listening and telling stories are a human need, they help us make sense of ourselves and our wider world.    

Have you achieved what you hoped to achieve with this documentary?  

More than I ever dreamed, 10 days ago the common purpose murder charges against the 270 miners were dropped. Now hopefully through the justice campaign’s use of the film we can ensure the charges are dropped.    

Where/how can people watch the documentary?  

Go to our website for more details: minershotdown.co.za or on Facebook.  

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