THE CRY OF REASON
1988. 56 minutes. Video. 16mm.
Produced by Robert Bilheimer, Ron Mix and Kevin Harris
A biography of Rev Beyers Naud'e's politicization and shift from the Afrikaner establishment to becoming a vital personality within the freedom movement.
TOPICS: Religion, Social Change, Sociology, Anthropology, Resistance.
USES: I, U, G, A and V.
This is an exceptionally well structured film which elaborates the role of the Church in struggle. The central character, Rev Beyers Naud'e, develops a systematic theology of resistance and liberation to oppose the theology that underlies apartheid, to which he subscribed as a young man. Naud'e's autobiographical narrative of his fundamental political shift shows why it was so difficult for Afrikaners of the 1960s to break out of their racist ideology. The film symbolically indicates the psychic wilderness that Naud'e had to traverse, never to return, or be allowed to return by his culture or group.
Racists do not normally recognize racism in themselves, but in this film we see how Naud'e wrestled free from what he initially thought were God-given tenets about racial social ordering. He was ostracized by Afrikaners because of their sense of betrayal, not because his ideas were particularly revolutionary. The film shows that both whites and blacks are caught in the vice-like grip of apartheid: blacks suffer grievously because whites have incarcerated themselves in a psychological prison legitimated by a theology of oppression.
Naud'e explains why apartheid is such a compelling theology to Afrikaners. He shows how the suffering it causes blacks is concealed in a belief system that offers the illusion of apartheid as a way of solving differences between people of different cultures. "The Afrikaner mind" which foregrounded the moral and ethical basis of apartheid, within which he was imprisoned until the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, persuaded Afrikaners of the justness of their cause. A compelling tenet of this belief system was that disobedience to the state entailed disobedience to God. The materiality of this belief is witnessed in interview after interview of ordinary Afrikaans-speaking whites questioned in series like The White Tribe of Africa, and single programs like Girls Apart, Children of Apartheid and Dan Rather's 48 Hours, made soon after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
Certain historical omissions need redressing in The Cry of Reason. The film makes no reference to the Dutch Reformed Church's (DRC) Cottesloe Conference in 1960 when it declared apartheid a heresy. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd had mobilized racist discourse within the Church's constituency to outflank the DRC and force it to recant this declaration. The film also lacks a sense of the institutional, constructing Naud'e by emphasizing him as an individual not organically connected to an emergent social movement of the 1960s. The film, for example, is silent about Naud'e's activities between the time of his ideological shift from the DRC in 1960 and his resignation from the Church in 1963. Also, the narrator talked about the "Black Consciousness period", showing pictures of Mandela, and then only Biko. This, states the film, was a period when blacks moved out on their own to break white domination. Naud'e's relationship to BCM is not clear, and Mandela had little, if anything, to do with black consciousness.
However, the individualizing of the person, Naud'e, does offer empowering possibilities: the film offers an affirmative dimension of how individuals can make a difference when circumstances permit. Naud'e, in fact, opened a space for religious dissidence in South Africa, first formalized in the Christian Institute which he established and later, the South African Council of Churches.
Despite his banning by the state, Naud'e remained enormously influential, and found mass support amongst blacks. Naud'e describes his banning as "the most meaningful, fruitful, and fulfilling period of his whole life", a sentiment which recalls the three commentators in Robben Island, who also emphasize the positive dimensions of their experiences in prison. These statements show how the government's isolation tactics achieved the opposite of what it intended. The state unintentionally empowered individuals by cutting them off from their constituencies, and providing them with the opportunity of turning adversity to advantage. They found ways of dealing with their imprisonment, whether under house arrest or in jail, which reinvigorated their collective practices once they were freed. Despite the film's cult of leadership rubric, Naud'e remains a humble, socially-concerned person, who exudes love and compassion.
The production crew have a way of making films that make the most sordid of backgrounds appear idyllic. The sequences of the squalid Alexandra township is shot against a pink dawn, making the sense of irony between beauty and poverty more poignant. The camera's focus on the faces of small, unspoiled innocent children, heightens the tragedy by contrasting them with children in coffins and hardened 16 year olds who attend school heavily armed. Images of great and intense beauty are destroyed from within -- a metaphor for apartheid.
Images and narration work symbiotically to reinforce or hold each other at a distance in a relationship of tension. The scene of the dead boy in a coffin is contrasted with a defiant poem from Two Dogs and Freedom. The sound track is saying that Two Dogs and Freedom encodes the hopes and aspirations of the youth, but the visual cautions this optimism with depictions of the consequences of this hope. But the body shown is not a twisted mangled grotesqueness; rather with its face covered in a gossamer of gauze, it has an ethereal beauty, a metaphor for what peace can and eventually will be, both literally in the present and materially in the future.
The Cry of Reason speaks to a variety of audiences at many levels simultaneously, from the literal to the symbolic. The film never speaks down to its audiences, but empowers them as individuals. In this, The Cry of Reason offers an affirmative dimension of the anti-apartheid Church in struggle. In so doing, it removes itself from other films that so literally index the litany of atrocities perpetrated by the apartheid government.
DISTRIBUTORS: Southern Africa Media Center
(price range video sale $195 rental $75; 16mm sale $850 rental $95).
(Written by Keyan G Tomaselli, Ruth E Teer-Tomaselli and MSU Evaluators, 1990/1)