The commentator of the South African television series, "Africa: Search for Common Ground", John Matshikiza, describes the series as an attempt to demonstrate that Africa is not as the media would have us believe; a continent riddled with conflict and destruction. "Africa: Search for Common Ground" focuses on Africa's struggle to resolve its problems and, by doing so, proves, "there is another Africa." One episode of the series examines the resolution strategies of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and chronicles the events surrounding the testimony of Wouter Mentz before the Commission. Mentz, a former member of the South African covert and dirty tricks operation, stationed at the infamous Vlakplaas base, is one of hundreds of South Africans disclosing his crimes committed during apartheid. He is asking the Commission and his victims for forgiveness and vindication. According to the commentator, the question viewers must ask themselves is, "Should these men be forgiven for what they have done?" The question, like the film itself, positions the camera, and its invisible viewers, in the role of confessor, charged with the power to absolve the sinner from his sins. The camera in this episode of "Common Ground" sides with Mentz and aims to present Mentz's confession as worthy of absolution.
Mentz unburdens his soul to the camera, admitting to the crimes he committed and trying to explain why he committed them. Although in one sense Mentz uses the camera to make his case, the camera also turns Mentz into an object and reifies its position of authority by constructing the truth of Mentz's confession. The camera of the documentary filmmaker seems to simply capture the truth on film. But this episode provides a clear example of how the camera constructs the truth it presents. Extreme close-ups of Mentz's face as he struggles to explain why he did what he did at Vlakplaas coaxes our sympathy for this Afrikaner who grew up believing that blacks were communists, the enemies. We watch as he weeps while giving his testimony before the Commission, and the narrator describes the loneliness and despair Mentz feels while the camera observes him in all his vulnerability, showering. This personal space solicits our acceptance of the truth Mentz seems to wrench from deep within himself.
We see Mentz in his private, personal life, walking the grounds of Vlakplaas on a sunny day in casual, civilian clothes and relaxing with friends while John Lennon plays on the radio. The camera enters into Mentz's personal space, his personal life, and, it would have us believe, his mind. We judge him not by the evidence of the case, but by our ability to see inside his soul and understand what he has done. He is human, just like us, the victim of a warped ideology, and sorry for what he has done, the episode claims. We, like the panel of judges who sit on the Commission, are asked to forgive Mentz, and as the facts are presented to us, it would be hard not to sympathize with him.
We become readers of Mentz's face, his gestures, and his words. We watch him weep and wonder if he is sincere, and in this way, we make our evaluation of him. Michel Foucault claims that the confession, unlike its historical predecessor the Medieval trial, produces truth not as the result of a test, but as an act of interpretation. Truth is then produced by way of a network of power relations where the confessor reconstructs his tale to a judge, who then reads his tale and participates in any production of meaning, or truth, which is claimed to reside within the confession itself. "It is no longer a question of saying what one has done … but of reconstructing, in and around the act, the thoughts that recapitulated it, the obsessions that accompanied it, the images, desires, modulations, and quality of the pleasure that animated it" (Foucault 1990:63). The episode spends little time examining either the crime itself or evidence about who is responsible for the crime. Instead, we learn about the man and his motivations. The camera mediates our analysis of Mentz and reconstructs his crimes by interviewing his friends, his ex-wife, his lawyer, and Mentz himself. Our judgement can only be based on how we read the man, and the camera enacts a great deal of authorial control over its viewers.
In the end Mentz's victim's wife cannot forgive him. However, we, as viewers, are urged to absolve the man from his sins. The lesson to be learned is that confession brings redemption and, as the narrator tells us, "only truth will heal wounds." The question Matshikiza asks at the beginning of the episode, "Should these men be forgiven for what they have done?" is superfluous because, in this program its answer is already given.
Foucault, Michel. (1990). The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.