Long Night’s Journey Into Day: Frances Reid’s and Deborah Hoffmann’s Sundance Winning Docu

Frances Reid’s and Deborah Hoffmann’s Long Night’s Journey Into Day, the Sundance’s grand jury prize-winning documentary, offers a humanistic, compassionate look at the inner workings and psychological dynamics of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in the country’s unprecedented effort to heal its collective wounds.

Boldly confronting such tough issues as the struggle for justice and need for forgiveness, the film centers on four cases studies that expose the roots and banality of evil during Apartheid. There may be a small theatrical audience for this intense, highly emotional docu, which is guaranteed a long life on the festival circuit before landing on TV, cable, and other ancillary venues.

As they demonstrated in their previous collaborations, which they directed, lensed, or edited, among them the Oscar-nominated Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter and the Oscar-winning Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, Reid and Hoffman have tackled controversial issues with admirable passion and conviction.

The strategy in each of the four histories presented is direct confrontation between the perpetrators of crime and their victim’s families. Peter and Linda Biehl, parents of slain American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, face two of their daughter’s killers when they travel to South Africa. In one of the docu’s emotional highlights, the Biehls consent to meet the family of one of the young men responsible for her 1993 death in a Cape Town suburb.

Eric Taylor, a white, former security officer, requested pardon for his part in the murder of the “Cradlock 4,” a group of black anti-Apartheid activists. Challenged by two of the widows of the slain men, as well as the attorney for the victims’ widows, Taylor admits to his guilt, hoping for forgiveness that clearly will not soon be forthcoming.

In the third incident, a bright African National Congress activist, Robert McBride, who detonated a fatal car bomb that killed three innocent white women in a Durban bar, reconstructs his action in court, with Sharon Welgemond, the sister of one of the victims, in attendance. The “rationale” he provides for his violence–seeking to subvert the status quo–is met with hostility.

The story of two mothers of murdered township youths, along with a black policeman who applied for amnesty in the youths’ murders, is recounted by Tony Weaver, a Cape Town journalist who investigated the manslaughter.

What Reid and Hoffmann courageously bring to the surface is an examination of the very nature of racist violence, showing how the perpetrators of crime, white and black, were motivated to kill as an expression of outrage that had little to do directly with their immediate victims. Without much editorializing, the filmmakers illustrate the human need for forgiveness as well as how difficult and perhaps even impossible it is to implement amnesty de facto.

Interspersed with the factual exposition and wrenching testimonies are revelatory statements from Glenda Wildschut and Mary Burton, two TRC Commissioners, and from Jann Tuner, a journalist covering the TRC hearings.

Offering a useful chapter in oral history, Long Night’s Journey Into Day is a unique documentary that demonstrates the impossibility of separating the private from the public dimensions of politics, and the pain involved in trying to account for behaviors that cannot withstand any rational or human explanation.

A Reid/Hoffman production. Produced by Frances Reid. Co-producer, Johnny Symons. Co-directed by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann. Camera (color), Reid and Ezra Jwili; editors, Hoffmann and Kim Roberts; music, Lebo M; sound (Dolby), Victor Mzwandile Njokwana; post-production supervisor, Megan Mylan.

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (documentary competition), Jan 29, 2000. Running time: 90 min.

With: TRC Chairperson, Desmond Tutu, TRC Commissioners, Glenda Wildschut and Mary Burton, TRC Human Rights Violations Committee Member, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela; and journalist Jann Turner.