The Other Man - F.W. de Klerk
An Interview with Director Nic Rossier
By Mende Smith
To Nicolas Rossier, anyone with an untold story is a documentary subject: any complicated and misunderstood figure brings an opportunity to see the story through new eyes. Rossier’s work spans eccentric street performers in central park, to the most transformational world leaders of our last century. Here, Rossier explains his thinking, and his method of construction—with a deeply felt conviction in his projects. His latest project is, 'The Other Man' a documentary about South Africa's F.W. de Klerk. He talks with Reap about overcoming the obstacles of the business that is film.
So, you are a filmmaker, Nicolas, your writing and directing credits are pretty heavy even for the genre—you have had to do some heavy lifting telling these stories, let’s talk about what that’s like.
It’s interesting, yeah. I guess I have always fallen on subjects that were some how out of the main stream in a way. I fall on subjects that are somewhat controversial when I treat the subjects and sometimes they are not controversial later. For different reasons I am always interested in stories that are not really told because that’s where I can come in as an independent, otherwise I compete with too many other people all telling the same stories.
Like the story you told on the life of Isidore Block? Life Is A Dream I am also a published poet, and a very big fan of poetry. I am really curious what making that film in 2000 was like…so few poets are ever celebrated on film, Nicolas, it is very cool that you told his iconic story.
Yes, that was a very interesting story. I met him by chance after two years arriving in New York, I find him to be quite amazing. I got together with a great friend of mine who liked him as well and we filmed him over 3 years and opened in New York in July 2000.
Did you have to have conversations with yourself about the kinds of stories you wanted to tell? You picked the most difficult genre to make into films—doing docs and docudramas— Some of the subjects of your films are very controversial and tackle sexual and physical abuse, prejudice, brutality, and racism—people and periods of history triumphant and ugly, how did you navigate that?
It is especially difficult to navigate it, yes, when I first arrived in New York I studied film and I also studied acting so I did a lot of theatre and when I was studying theatre, I started following my first character, who was Isadore Block and it took 3 years. One thing they teach you in acting; especially if you are studying method acting is to create in you the feelings and thoughts of the characters you play and they also teach you how to leave these characters when you’re done. But it’s hard sometimes when the character is as powerful as this poet was. After a year with Isidore, I started sounding like him. You don’t have to love your character but it sort of comes into you—who ever they are. He was so funny and he was so brutally honest, and he had had a terrible life and yet he was using his drama, his tragedies to make beautiful poetry. He was a soul in the park. He came out of nowhere and sat next to me and opened up to me. I was just on a bench and he came like somebody from another world and he started talking to me. It was very special and I got completely dragged into this world and so I had to tell his story and it was my first piece and it became a one-hour film.
So what were some of the challenges making that first film?
It was a film that I directed with a friend of mine, actually. We made mistakes and we probably could have gone much further with that film—had we had a little bit more money or maybe it was the time—so you learn and I was maybe, 27 then? I think it was a fascinating story and I should have developed it into a script. I watched my film with an agent and he said he thought I should make it into a feature film! He wanted to talk to punch and to get somebody to play Isidore like DeNiro or Hoffman, and I said no, I am not ready! Now, looking back, I would have done it of course and said, yeah, sure go ahead, call Dustin Hoffman or DeNiro. He was very serious.
What did it look like when you first delved into the history for your most recent film—I read your director’s statement in the press release, but I want to ask what was it that made it such a passion for you to tell the story—in what ways did you most connect with the character F.W. de Klerke?
The Other Man is an interesting story and I was actually working on idea for a series which was about Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, the untold stories of the more less known honorees and that sort of thing when I came across de Klerk’s story on a shoot in South Africa in 1998 (my first trip in SA was in 1992 during CODESA). I was helping my friend make a film about someone who had disappeared during Apartheid and so I studied the conflict of that country and kept reading about it and so I thought let’s start the Nobel Peace in South Africa—I know it better than other places and then [Nelson] Mandela and my focus was going to be on de Klerke and Mandela together but then I realized Mandela was off and he was not giving interviews anymore and so I decided to focus on the one who was completely unexposed which was de Klerke.
And so you switched your focus onto him and then what happened next in the process?
I decided to do the film through the eyes of the “bad guy” and how he changed. And the idea that if somebody is bad and then becomes good it is probably more interesting idea to explore than a portrayal or iconography of someone who was good all the time, and psychologically, it’s interesting to understand why people make their decisions and why they change, and how we can maybe entice others to do the same or to help others to understand a little better how we can affect change.
What was he like, de Klerk, when you first met him what was your impression of him as a subject for this film?
Actually the first time I met him face-to-face it was not so good. He was trying to control it he had seen the work I had done previously about Aristide and how he was overthrown and sent into exile and he was actually embraced by the ANC government. He knew I was going to cover some controversial issues so the first interview was not so great. He was polite, he gave me an hour, and I think I got what I needed. The second time I saw him it was much better and he was very open to me. I think he’s a typical male Afrikaner and the men are all very reserved. But he let his guards down and in another interview and you can really feel how he has personally wrestled with many difficult questions.
In many ways I imagine it is like the Victorian Era in their refusal to show the truth and emotions, with society being very reserved and not open to certain dialogue, feelings, or even open to discussing their own history?
Exactly. It’s interesting, I remember one South African lady saying to me that South African men don’t like to express their emotions too much, they have this burden on them that they have to be the protector like this ideal of the pioneer male who is still there fighting against the harsh elements of the wilderness, this very masculine, old fashioned way of behaving—that may be why they are so good at Rugby? I don’t know you just have to understand it.
There was a story of this friend of de Klerk who told me how his brother who was an intellectual and who had a huge influence on him. His brother Wimpie talked even earlier against Apartheid and he was more liberal than F.W. I would say and he spoke out for change much earlier. So the brother had this big influence on him. One day his brother had a black gardener who worked for him for a long time and one day he was injured and he was bleeding and he had to take him to the hospital as the man was bleeding to death and when De Klerk’s brother took the hand of the dying man he realized that their blood looked the same and how they were just one, same flesh, no barriers anymore. These things to me are fascinating, because it’s through these types of experiences in life that we change.
Wow, that is such an incredible story, the dying man actually reached out to him and he reached back.
Yes, it was just love. Falling in love with someone of a different race and culture at the moment where race doesn’t matter anymore, religion doesn’t matter anymore or when you find yourself dying with somebody who is not your family or your culture or whatever and so you have to help each other. All at once these differences just go away—only through personal experiences like this do you have the epiphany.
And he was willing to talk to you about this and was all right with it being on film?
Well, actually no. He kept saying “Off camera! Off camera! I can’t do it with the camera on…” He insisted and I ‘d say, it is so important that we see this story this way too. So, yeah, they are very, very afraid about telling things that are a little bit too revealing of things and in America, here, we love it because that is the way we understand things, we love these types of things; maybe sometimes too much, but that is our way to understand things around us. So, in that sense the males are very different from us. They are still very much in the nineteenth century about sharing their emotions.
In working with these real characters and discoveries and all of these things put together that make films stand out from one another, can you name the shift to where you as the director have that “Aha!” moment? You are working with public officials and former statesman or men and women who once held powerful positions, what is it like to know that it is working and it will be all right?
It is a shift, yeah. The shift can happen through unexpected events like that or in an organized more predictable way. There is always, consciously or unconsciously an emotional thing happening and sometimes you don’t realize it. One time I interviewed this minister of law and order and he is not in the film, but he is the only one who went as far as asking for forgiveness, he went on to wash the feet of the relatives of his victims, actually the wives and daughters of people he had ordered to kill. He said to me in 1994 that he was not convinced emotionally that what they did was the right thing—adding that it took his own wife’s suicide in their pool—for him to see that what he had been doing was wrong, admitting he had not internalized it until that happened. That is how change comes for most people, in big events or small ones, it is gradual but it happens all the time.
I interviewed Dr. Diane Watson back in 2010—she was a dear friend of Winnie Mandela and visited her when Nelson was first let out of prison. She told stories about the uproar and the politics of that time—I would love to get your take on what it had to be like for the women who were there at that time of great change?
Let’s see the most famous one is Winnie Mandela, or you have Nadine Gordimer or Lilian Ngoyi. You have hundreds of them, some very exposed some forgotten but all played key roles in fighting the regime. The whites and blacks that have been the pioneers of change have struggled since the 50s there. What I noticed through my film is that; and there is a debate now in South Africa, I focus through the eyes of de Klerk and people around him that played a role. But we have to remember, we are talking about thousands of people who have made this change possible—and many of them are women. In my film, I try to go about that through the eyes of Marcia and her mother. Her mother was an activist who was executed by a famous death squad leader. There were hundreds of women like her who sacrificed their life for the cause. I tried to identify some of those people but all of the heroes should have a voice.
Rossier is still looking for more forgotten laureates to feature in his upcoming series. His current film, The Other Man is opening in New York this weekend at the Quad Cinema and will play in select theaters and festivals around the globe.