The vagaries of travelling by public transport – with a fractured knee, no less – is not about to stop film-maker Nadine Cloete from attending meetings with people she is hoping will support the completion of her documentary, Action Kommandant.
Shrugging her shoulder self-deprecatingly, by way of explaining the crutch placed at the side of the table in the busy restaurant at which we meet for our interview, she says: “I was knocked over by a car while attending an Anton Fransch memorial.”
Anton, an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) commander, was killed in 1989 by the South African police and South African Defence Forces for his anti-apartheid activities.
It is this dedication to keeping alive the memory of South Africa’s struggle heroes that has, for the past five years, seen her determinedly working to complete the documentary, which, she says, offers an intimate portrait of slain anti-apartheid activist, Ashley Kriel, who was a Bonteheuwel resident.
Ashley was killed on July 9 1987 by apartheid policeman, Jeffrey Benzien, who shot him in the back while the liberation fighter was in hiding at a safehouse in Hazendal. After appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the policeman was given amnesty for the murder, to which he confessed.
As to what drew her to document the story of his life, Nadine says: “His was a name I was always aware of, but I didn’t really know who he was. I then saw archive footage of him and was really struck by it: hearing him speak; seeing him in action. I wanted to know who this person was; who the person behind the fist in the air was.”
Having secured some research funding from the National Film and Video Foundation in 2011, Nadine set about telling this story.
Because she had “made a conscious decision to keep the film intimate”, the Goodwood-based filmmaker conducted interviews with Ashley’s friends and fellow comrades, as well as his family.
“I filmed them in front of the mural at the Ashley Kriel memorial centre in Salt River,” she says before adding: “It was tough, because 30 years after his death, it is still a very emotional thing for them.”
The emotionally taxing nature of having to recount their brother’s life, his death at the hands of apartheid security police and their subsequent lives without him was, however, clearly superseded by the desire to have this story told.
Says Nadine: “His family really wanted to be involved. They were very, very supportive. They’d call people up for me to interview and once even wrote an affidavit for me. They never once interfered with the creative process and were always willing to open up – and that’s a huge deal for me.”
For Ashley’s sister, Michel Assure, the family’s decision to support the film was a no-brainer.
“It was an instant decision – we didn’t need to even discuss it,” she says, speaking to me in her tiny Athlone office, lined with images of struggle icons such Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.
“We felt that, in whichever way Ashley’s story could be told – whether in a book or a film or whatever – that would be a good thing. It would be a way of keeping his legacy alive.”
Of her late younger brother, she says: “We called him ‘Ash’, but I was always referred to him as my little brother. He was awesome as a brother. We had such a unique bond. You know how sometimes siblings fight? Not us. We shared a very special love. He was selfless. He’d always put other people’s needs before his own. Hy was regtig a really caring person.”
“You know,” she says, “the last time we saw him was Christmas Eve in 1985. That was just before he went to the ANC camp in Lusaka. After that, we had no communication whatsoever.”
The imminent dangers his activism posed became more and more apparent, with increasing threats from apartheid security police against Ashley, “die klein terroris”.
“They’d say things like ‘so plat soos ’* haas gaan ons hom skiet as hom kry’,” she recalls, adding: “We had to be strong for his sake and my mom’s sake. We had to protect both of them by all means.”
Unable to protect him from the murder that was to ultimately be his fate, Michel says: “For those two years I had no physical contact with him – until the day I went to identify his body at the Salt River mortuary. That was very, very painful.”
Nadine concedes that “certain things in the film were hard for the family to see, but they insisted they be included. The footage of his funeral, for example, with his body just lying there and the police firing teargas canisters into not only the church, but also at his coffin.”
Michel adds: “The police had no respect. I remember I was walking my granny and grandpa out of the church to the family car and had to pull them down to lay flat oppie kerk se stoep to prevent them from being shot. It was really terrible.
“But, you know,” she smiles, “through all of those hurdles, they never broke us.
“We still came out strong. We still came out victorious.”
After five years of financially and emotionally draining work on her project (“it was really overwhelming”), Nadine had to step into the role of fundraiser to complete the final stages: things such as grading and paying for image and music licensing.
Having secured all the funding needed to finish the film, how does she feel?
“Mostly, I’m really, really relieved,” she laughs, adding: “because this year is the 40th anniversary of June 16 (1976 uprisings), and the 55th anniversary of the start of MK. Next year will also be the 30th year since (Ashley’s) death, so I am so glad for this.”
All too aware of the relatively short time in which she achieved her funding goal, Nadine says: “It is so crazy. It hasn’t even been two full weeks since starting this drive. It really just shows that the connection he had with his fellow comrades never faded. This is really thanks to, and also in honour of them.”
In response to the question around how important it was for the family to see this project completed, Michel said: “No, you shouldn’t ask how important it would be for the family.
“You should rather ask how important it would be for the people – for all people – to see it. Because Ashley was really a people’s person. He fought for the people.”
It is this fight – and the story behind the person who bravely fought it – which Nadine, through her film, will be bringing to life.