Goodbye Bafana

Full marks to director Bille August for achieving the near-impossible: crafting a film about Nelson Mandela that threatens to send you to sleep and reduces the great man himself to mere background noise. Of course, ‘Goodbye Bafana’ is only about Mandela in as much as it’s based on the memoirs of James Gregory, a South African prison warden who claimed to have developed a close relationship with his charge during 21 years of guarding him, first on Robben Island and later at the less stringent Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons. His book – and this film – tells of an understanding between the two men that’s symbolised by Gregory’s unlikely mastery of the Xhosa language, a skill inherited from his childhood friendship with – whisper it – a black boy. You’d never guess, though, from August’s unquestioning and deadly dull adaptation that Anthony Sampson, Mandela’s biographer, had already dismissed Gregory’s book, reporting Mandela as saying with characteristic diplomacy: ‘That man has quite some imagination.’

Joseph Fiennes is Gregory, a family man with a wife and two kids who is posted to Robben Island and who at first casually wills Mandela’s death – ‘He should have got the rope!’ – but later softens and even smuggles gifts to his wife. Dennis Haysbert plays Mandela, but he manages little with little: his dialogue is sparse, which only causes him to cocoon himself in the gravity of the role.

‘Goodbye Bafana’ spans roughly two decades and ends with a reconstruction of Mandela walking out of prison in 1989. Why not use archive? By then, Gregory is a lighter presence, full of fresh liberalism, and it’s clear what August is attempting: to capture the thawing of apartheid in the person of this everyman who happened to be close to Mandela. But it’s a shame that politics are as absent as Mandela himself. When ideas do creep in, they’re presented simply. ‘But is that fair?’ asks Gregory’s little daughter, when told of segregation. The bar of debate is low.

What’s most frustrating about ‘Goodbye Bafana’ is that August fails to embrace the subjectivity of Gregory’s memoir and repeats his tale straight. We’re left with the absurd notion that Mandela’s slight softening of attitude towards one of his prison guards – a mere acquaintance – is of some historical consequence. Either that or we should identify some simplistic metaphorical significance in their relationship. ‘He always asks after you,’ another warden tells Gregory after he’s spent a long period away from Mandela. One suspects Mandela had better things on his mind.

Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday May 11 2007
Duration: 117 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Bille August
Screenwriter: Greg Latter
Cast: Joseph Fiennes
Dennis Haysbert
Diane Kruger
Shiloh Henderson
Tyron Keogh
Megan Smith
Jessica Manuel
Faith Ndukwana
Terry Pheto
Lesley Mongezi
Zingi Mtuzula
Mehboob Bawa
Shakes Myeko
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ross

this movie is insulting. how sad south africans can't even be responsible for their own stories. why do we allow foreigners to tell our stories? the characters might develop, but we see none of these transitional developments or how they occurred. I felt cheap. the accents are bizarre, the ideas are simplistic and superficial, Mandela is given no justice. utter crap.

John Ross

Calhoun's cynism concerning the plausibility of a white South African learning isiXhosa is risible and betrays his ignorance. White boys brought up in rural areas of the Eastern Cape have had amaXhosa friends and learned their language, isiXhosa. Calhoun's cynicism would be better exercised by questioning this as a 'true' story, as the authenticity of Gregory's memoirs have long been subject to doubt. Factual or not, the film's sensitive handling of its subject's change of heart and mind is entirely plausible. I found that rather than inducing sleep this film kept me awake on the long overnight flight from Jo'berg to London this week.