Filmmaker Interview

POV: What inspired you to make Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela?

Thomas Allen Harris: Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela is, in many ways, a eulogy for my late stepfather Lee, who was part of a global movement which brought about the end of apartheid. I didn't understand who he was when I was growing up, and it was only after he died that I realized that he was a hero, and that had I misjudged our relationship and him. In many ways, this film shows an adult son of a deceased father, trying to go back and fix their relationship, seeing his father and himself in a new way.

The film was triggered when I went to South Africa for my stepfather's funeral. The minute I got off the plane, I realized two things: one, that in South Africa Lee is not considered my stepfather, he's considered my father; and two, I was able to see him in a way that allowed me to understand him somuch better. When I grew up with him in the United States he was always in exile, always an outsider, and in some ways, always a little bit disempowered. But in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Lee's hometown, he was a hero.

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I got to see things I had misconstrued, and I learned about our cultural differences. For instance, the way he called my mother's name always bothered me. He shouted it and I had thought, "why is he shouting at her?" But in Bloemfontein, I saw that everyone in South Africa shouts — it's part of the culture. I also started to understand the sacrifice he went through in giving up his life to the struggle to free South Africa. His commitment was so profound that he was able to maintain a 30-year exile.

In some ways, after I went to Bloemfontein I saw Lee fromthe point of view of an adult, as opposed to seeing him as a kid, which I had done previously. That gave me a strong desire to know him better as an adult, and the only way to do that was to begin to interview the guys that he left South Africa with.

POV: Tell us about how you started interviewing the 12 disciples.

Harris: There were seven living disciples, the guys with whom Lee left Bloemfontein. In many ways, they shared Lee's 30-plus years in exile. I began to interview them right then during that week of the funeral, which in South Africa, lasts a week. After that seven-day funeral, I had the opportunity to interview two of the guys Lee left with. They began to tell me the story of Lee, but I didn't know it was going to be a film at that point. The stories they told me were phenomenal. I had grown up with the story about how Lee left South Africa, got to Botswana on the way to Ghana, and that there was a breakdown in communication and the 12 had to go to Tanzania, where they ran out of money. I knew about the hardships and sacrifices that they endured, but the two disciples that I interviewed started to fill in some of the gaps of the story, making it richer and allowing me to understand the moral fiber that made up this man who became my dad.

POV: How did you find the remaining disciples?

Harris: I didn't have a difficult time finding the guys with the exception of one. All of them were at the funeral and they were all part of Lee's life. When they came back to South Africa in 1994 they remained close. Even if they hadn't seen each other for five, ten, or 15 years, they still kept in touch with each other. When they spoke at the funeral I began to understand Lee's story. That led me to begin interviewing the other disciples.

I'd met some of the disciples as a kid, when they came to the U.S. and visited us. In South Africa they were very amenable to being interviewed. I interviewed them with my mom the week of the funeral, and two years later, I decided to really embark on the journey of this film in earnest. I contacted them by letter, told them I was making this film about Lee, and asked them if they would be a part of it. They gave me their consent but I could tell that there was a bit of wariness when I started. I don't think they understood that I was going to tell a story that involved 12 people, the anti-apartheid movement, and the connection between me and Lee.

The film took five years to make, so I had plenty of time to build up trust with the disciples. After the first serious set of interviews, the trust was established. My mother was a producer of the film, so she was a link between me and the disciples because she was very good friends with them. But also, over time, they began to understand why I felt such a need to make this film, and they really opened themselves and their lives to me.

POV: What did you learn about yourself from making this film?

Harris: Seeing my stepdad in this light, with his sacrifice, discipline and moral fiber, really helped me understand what he gave me. I have always attributed my commitment as a filmmaker and my commitment as an activist to my mom and her activism; I grew up fighting with Lee because he was a stepdad. But Lee never stopped loving me. That's one of the things I realized in the course of the film. I also realized that even though I fought him, in some ways, I became like him. I started my career as a TV journalist; he came to this country to become a TV journalist. And as a TV journalist I was an activist and involved in community building. Now I have a commitment to making a certain type of film, and that commitment and tenacity can be traced to Lee's commitment and tenacity.

POV: Why did you title the film The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela?

Harris: When Lee first joined our family in 1972, very few people in our family and our community in this country knew about Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC), the organization of which Mandela was president. That was a very difficult time for Lee because he was poor, a student and a freedom fighter without any support in this country. Over time, I watched the movement grow, and by the time I went to college, everyone knew about Nelson Mandela.

At the same time, I was living in a the house with this freedom fighter and privy to seeing the difficulties of being this kind of activist and being a part of this community of people — both South Africans and Americans — who were focusing on bringing freedom to South Africa before it was popular. I think that many people, particularly in South Africa, think that the exiles who left were having a great time partying, going to school and getting cushy jobs. They had no idea about the tremendous sacrifice — personal, economic and emotional sacrifices — that the exiles were undergoing.

In all different movements, there are people who make incredible sacrifices who never get mentioned. They're not struggling for glory or for personal rewards. They're doing it because it's what's right. In every movement there are figureheads — like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. — but it's important that we acknowledge and know about the unsung heroes who supported them. It's the only way for us to know that everything that we do counts, and it's important to know that our actions can have reverberations across the globe even if we're not a world leader or the head of a huge organization.

Each of these 12 men who left South Africa was just one person, but they said "We're going to take a step and we're going to try to change the situation." So for me, Twelve Disciples relates to the Christian metaphor. If the disciples hadn't gone and really spread the word of Jesus Christ would we know about him? It takes every single individual to change society for the better and to create a vision for a healthy and beautiful society.

POV: Who is the audience for this film?

Harris: I made the film for many different audiences, including ones in South Africa and America. To me, the principle audience for the film is the global audience that was part of the anti-apartheid movement. We all became involved in the movement at different points in our lives and in many different ways, and some of us had more history with it than the others. Some people stopped being interested in South Africa, whereas others are still involved in South Africa and want to know how the anti-apartheid movement translated into a ruling party there.

In terms of the history of South Africa, making this film for a South African audience and making this for an American audience is very different. A South African audience has a much more thorough knowledge of African history. For instance, Lee left South Africa in 1960, and that was a year when 17 African countries became free. If you asked an American which countries became free in 1960 they would have no idea.

There's a very strong link not only between the South African liberation movement and other independence movements across Africa, but also between independence movements across Africa and Asia, and the civil rights movement in the United States. I am interested in getting young people to be aware of the connections that existed and exist today between these different countries and their histories, and their different routes to independence and the challenges that they faced. South Africa is benefiting from having seen all these other African countries become free, and it can sidestep certain challenges and pitfalls as a result of observing other independence movements.

POV: Do you have any advice for a first-time filmmaker?

Harris: My advice to a first-time filmmaker is to get a camera and start shooting. I think that young documentary filmmakers should look for stories in their communities. Within any community there are going to be leaders and unsung heroes, and I think it's important to tell those stories and to provide those models for people to celebrate. It's also incredibly important because by videotaping activists and sharing their stories, we're empowering those people and their message. Activists are marginalized because they tend not to choose careers that help to establish them financially. Instead, they give their lives to the community, so I think it's really important to help get their word out.