Translating South Africa’s reconciliation story

4 July 2014

The world premiere of A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake, the much-anticipated documentary debut of celebrated television/film/theatre director Michael Lessac, is set to be one of the highlights of this year’s Durban International Film Festival.

Some of the country’s foremost peace mediators will join the director, special guests, and members of the cast and crew for the world premiere screening, followed by a Q&A session, at Durban’s Suncoast Cinema on 20 July.

A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake follows a group of South African actors as they tour war-torn regions of the world to share their country’s experience of reconciliation. As they ignite dialogue among people with raw memories of atrocity, the actors find they must confront once again their homeland’s complicated and violent past – and question their own capacity for healing and forgiveness.

‘Can we forgive the past to survive the future?’

In 2001, Lessac returned to the Colonnades Theatre Laboratory, which he had founded 25 years before in New York City, to find a way of telling the story of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

“Can we forgive the past to survive the future?” This profound question, posed by Nelson Mandela, become a mandate by which other nations could live. Lessac wanted to bring the story of the TRC to a wider audience while exploring its potential as a concept that could be exported to other post-conflict zones.

Seeking to better understand the subtleties of the TRC process, he found himself looking beyond the presentations of victims and perpetrators and focusing instead on the the role of the interpreters who translated the commission’s proceedings into South Africa’s 11 official languages.

Lessac was intrigued by the fact that the interpreters, simultaneously translating in the first person, could never turn away from atrocity. Fascinated with what the TRC must have looked like through the eyes of people who, for two-and-a-half-years, verbalised every moment of the hearings, he met with a number of TRC interpreters as they relived their stories and memories for the first time.

Truth in Translation

In 2003, after interviewing over 350 actors in South Africa, Lessac held a three-week workshop with a core of chosen actors who developed script material out of their own life-experiences intertwined with the lives of the interpreters.

The theatrical vehicle for these conversations was a production entitled Truth in Translation, a hard-edged, multi-award winning theatrical production, with accompanying workshops, that was created between 2003 and 2006. It opened in Rwanda before going on to tour to three continents, 11 countries and 26 cities. It has played to more than 55 000 people and facilitated conflict transformation workshops for more than 10 000 participants.

A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake gives its audience a glimpse into the lives and minds of a group of South African performers who shared and listened, facilitated and responded to the heartbreaking real-life personal stories of the human casualties of global conflict.

As South Africans representing various facets of South African society, they were forced to look at whether they themselves had successfully “reconciled” their own individual pasts, and came to realise how complex and challenging it is to engage with the multifaceted concept of forgiveness.

‘Warriors of the most special kind’

“For me, this film pays homage to a very special group of South African actors and interpreters who were warriors of the most special kind,” says Lessac. “They allowed themselves to travel through worlds that were often more painful than their own worst nightmares.”

The documentary’s title refers to the answer given by perpetrators in conflict situations when asked why they kill babies. Their response, irrespective of their cultural background, is always, one way or another: “A snake gives birth to a snake.”

“The film was originally titled Truth in Translation, just like the play,” says Lessac. “We changed it to A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake because, no matter how true that might be, when revenge is celebrated as heroism it is a poor excuse for killing.”

The film was edited by Joel Plotch (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty, Gone), produced by Jacqueline Bertrand Lessac and Emma Tammi, and executive produced by Jonathan Gray and Robert Lear. It features never-before-heard original music by jazz legend Hugh Masekela, with lyrics taken from personal testimonies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Durban International Film Festival takes place at venues in and around Durban from 17 to 27 July.

Source: National Film and Video Foundation