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.