FILMMAKER INTERVIEW: PLOT FOR PEACE CO-DIRECTOR MANDY JACOBSON CHATS TO BEV
Filmmaker Interview | Industry Insight
Opening in selected cinemas on March 14 and in DVD/VOD on March 24, PLOT FOR PEACE is a documentary thriller directed by Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agullo that tells the true and untold story behind Nelson Mandela’s release. The film focuses on a protagonist: Jean-Yves Ollivier, also known as “Monsieur Jacques” and how this mysterious french businessman was key to Mandela’s release and the end of the apartheid.
Co-Director and Producer of PLOT FOR PEACE Mandy Jacobson caught up with BEV’s Ingrid Solbrig to discuss how this incredible story unfolded.
Q> Could you talk a bit about the origins of the film and how it all came to fruition?
I’m priviledged to run this project for a private foundation in South Africa called The African Oral History Archive Project. My man there used to collect the testimonies of people who made a difference towards South African democracy so we interviewed presidents, role-players, various people who were obviously engaged with struggle against the apartheid. During that process we came across a very interesting visual archive. It was a news broadcast and the narration said “this is Monsieur Jacques, who’s recently been awarded by the apartheid government”. I thought it was really curious. I had been there myself and I remember the apartheid soldier Wynand Du Toit getting released, but I didn’t know that it was by a frenchman. I then uncovered a book, and also they referred to this mysterious frenchman as Monsieur Jacques. Then after more research we found out that Nelson Mandela, once he had come into power, also honored him for his efforts. So me and my team thought we could have a really interesting story there. We went back to the former foreign minister and said “Who’s this guy? He was working with you!”, and then a whole new adventure begun, a story that we never dreamt we were gonna do…
Q> How did the African Oral History Archive help the story to become a film?
Our project African Oral History makes documentaries. Their mandade is particularly trying to engage with our people in the diaogue on history. History has many fathers and mothers, so we belive in telling as many stories as possible about our past, believing that it forges reconciliation, forsters a dialogue and national identity. So through that process we then said OK, let’s do something cheeky, let’s get a narrative filmmaker in who doesn’t know anything about South Africa, who doesn’t know anything about apartheid and see what kind of combustion that causes.
Q> How was it working with Carlos, coming from a background in fiction storytelling?
Bringing in Carlos was a real risk because of the fact that he knew nothing about the country, nothing about apartheid, but had experience in narrative storytelling. That was how we draw in forces and then had to go back to all the protagonists, because the story unfolded. It wasn’t like you got the story and then you write the script. It took a lot longer than in a normal documentary and it was really like piecing a jigsaw puzzle together as it unfolded. Because, let’s never forget, Jean-Yves Ollivier’s currency for 27 years was discretion and secrecy so before I even got Carlos I had to convince Jean-Yves Ollivier.
Q> How was the approach to Jean-Yves, did he agree immediately to be filmed or did you have to convince him?
We got in touch with him once “Pik” Botha [Foreign Minister during the apartheid] connected us, and he was vey reluctant. Why would he give up his currency of discretion when he’s been living with it? He’s lived with the successes, he’d seen it, if he’d wanted it all just for ego reasons he would have made a noise in 1994 when he got his award from Nelson Mandela. I think it’s to he credit of the African Oral History Archive where he felt that he could trust the context. It wasn’t a sweet little filmmaker knocking on his door. Yes, he might have a nice record but “I’m scared, I’m a powerful man, it’s not necessary…” The point of the archive is to say your interview doesn’t just sit alone. Not only we are making a documentary but it sits within an historical context that aims to have a legacy. Our archives are connected with an educational institution. So we tried to think about ways to make people interact with it.
Q> When did you realise you had a story in his character?
When we met him. We inmediately knew we had a story. He was giving us bits and pieces, all off the record at the time, but you know as a filmmaker, history documentaries are really difficult. You don’t want just to come across as a boring educational lesson, so if you find a character that can take you as we call as a taxi driver, you’ve got it. Then we got in touch with Stephen Smith [scrip writer of Plot for Peace], a really interesting journalist who’s now become a professor of African history. Also Steven is French and we really thought we needed someone to do the interviews in French. We also wanted people who had lived the events, and Steve had actually followed the ten year process. So when we were talking to the different protagonists, he could say “I was there”, which gives us the historical credibility we needed. He’d also written a very controversial book about Francophone-African relationships and French foreign policy in Africa and in the late 80’s he’d written “Le Monsieur Afrique” [Mister Africa] which basically critisised the secret where France interacts and exploits Africa. So once we knew we had that level of credibility we knew we could then take the risk with a narrative filmmaker.
Q> The film feels more like a thriller than a traditional historical documentary. It certainly uses fiction style narratives, the colors, the shot angles, the soundtrack. Why this decision?
We decided we wanted to reach an audience as wide as possible. We wanted to find a universal story in it, and the only way to do that is to create that political thriller. We specifically chose parts of the story that were in action and made the decision that it would be about the characters. So you could have been a Foreign Minister of Portugal, and relate to it because of Angola, but if you didn’t go into the warzone and weren’t moving, we were not interested. The more we could build it as a narrative where you’ve got a hero going on a hero’s journey, the more we believed we would reach a wider audience. So we chose to go more blue, and more cold, use archive and a huge soundtrack to try engage with the audiences in a more emotional way.
Q> How long did the project take?
We thought it was going to take a year. We shot a lot of the interviews but hadn’t quite found the visual motive. It took us about two years to film and I’d been working on it before, so three years in total plus this year of getting it out.
Q> Did you ever find yourself finding a new piece of the story and having to go back and interview someone again?
Yes, we did that a lot with a lot of interviewees because one was unlocking the other, and none of them knew the full picture of Jean-Yves. That was why this mysterious world of diplomacy was so efective on him, because he was able to be discrete, and keep things a secret.
Q> What were the challenges on making this film?
The more we found out about Jean-Yves the more you go “Oh my God, is this an autobiography of the man? Is it about a certain chapter of South African history?” Our mandate, because of our funders in the African Oral History Archive is tell a certain chapter of South African history. If you want to go and make a documentary about Jean-Yves Ollivier and his all life, which is really interesting, that’s another story. The challenge was to keep it character driven and to see the eyes of the story through him but not to dramatize it and picture him as a hero. We didn’t want people to come away thinking this is the man that freeded Mandela and also staying true to history. So it was very complex to achieve that very delicate balance.
Q> The film is about the ability of one man to bring together people who had very different visions and perhaps even hated each other and opening dialogue between them. What do you think we can learn from this story given that there’s so many wars and conflicts out there?
I learned from it that ideological dogma doesn’t promote dialogue. Jean-Yves was so interesting in that he never took sides, as he calls himself in the film “an electron libre” [a free electron], he was a free molecule. Because of that he never had an agenda when he was going in. So he brings back very simple human qualities that maybe we’ve forgotten in a world of wars and pointing fingers. That’s the first thing, which is about human qualities: trust, talking to each other, listening to each other. We take those for granted because we just think that they are such simple things that we do on a simple daily basis, and we don’t. I think the second point is around human agency, individual agency and that you can make a difference in the world. It doesn’t mean that you can only make a difference in the world if you act alone. Once we started understanding Jean-Yves, it was about him and a group of people that were making a difference, so people can make a difference. Hopefully that’s one of the universal messages: that you can. What’s interesting is that when you do speak to Jean-Yves, when you ask him why he did it, he has nothing profound to say. He never had a masterplan where he’d wake up one day and say “I’m going to change the world!”. Yes he had business interests, he’s never been secret about it, but it’s about human beings realising that you can make a small difference if you take action.