Sydney Film Festival Review: Winnie (South Africa, 2017) is a documentary that for better or worse celebrates the mother of a nation

When you consider the name Winnie Mandela do you think of the mother of a nation or a terrorist? The documentary, Winnie tends to sit in the former camp by telling this woman’s history and story from her own point-of-view. It’s fascinating to hear her out and this documentary is a long overdue one, but it is by no means perfect.

The film is the second one by director Pascale Lamche to tackle South Africa’s history during apartheid, having previously made Accused #1: Nelson Mandela. In Winnie, the focus is trained solely on Messer Mandela’s wife. Winnie was the woman who was forced to fight on the frontline while her husband and other important individuals were in jail or exiled.

To tell this story from Winnie’s perspective is both a good and bad. The positive is that the 80-year-old Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is incredibly articulate and thoughtful, and this film has the chance to cut through the muckraking and other nonsense that was perpetuated by the media. The downside, however, is that the story also has a tendency towards hagiography and painting Winnie in too pleasant a light. The allegations regarding Winnie’s involvement in the alleged murder of Stompie Moeketsi is dealt with swiftly, while other allegations of abuse and brutality fail to be addressed or elaborated on.

This film also interviews a number of different individuals including Winnie and Nelson’s daughter, Zindziswa Mandela and Winnie’s biographer, Anne Marie Bezdrob. There are also quotes from journalists and lawyers and while these people give some historic context, there is also a level of assumed knowledge which may make it difficult for those people who aren’t properly acquainted with the history and politics of South Africa.

It is commendable to see a documentary about an intelligent and complex woman and it is surprising that one hasn’t been made sooner. It is also good to see that this film was directed by a woman. But neither of these aspects mean that Winnie was a saint, despite this documentary hinting otherwise with its overwhelmingly positive angle.

Winnie ultimately does a good job of telling the chronological story of an important person in South African history. And while it helps to redress some problems and issues that were thrown up in history it could have done with being longer in order to dig deeper and analyse this powerful woman in more detail. This is essential because the distinguished Winnie’s story deserves to be a definitive one.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Winnie screens at the Sydney Film Festival on the 11th, 14th and 17th. For tickets and more details head HERE.

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