New Thuli Madonsela doccie fails to bring depth to its subject

CITY PRESS REVIEW: Whispering Truth to Power

Director: Shameela Seedat

RATING: 2/5

There’s a scene in the opening moments of Whispering Truth to Power, the new documentary about the work of former public protector Thuli Madonsela and her last days in office, in which she is chatting to a reporter. She speaks nonchalantly about outgrowing feelings of inadequacy and social awkwardness and how she notices that the public views her differently from how she sees herself. Madonsela just wants to do her job and assert her sense of being normal.

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Here is the problem with Shameela Seedat’s film, it then goes out of its way to contradict Madonsela’s view of herself. Ultimately, it operates in a space where she’s seen as a kind of moral avatar and not a fully developed human being.

Whispering Truth to Power happens to be the opening film at Ecounters this year and, although the film makers had proximity to Madonsela, there’s a lack of intimacy that echoes through. You have to meet Madonsela once to know that she’s not much of a talker, but when she does speak she’s extremely detailed. Finishing the film, I left knowing as much about her as I did when I started – nagged by the feeling that the real Madonsela was left on the editing room floor in much more interesting incarnations of herself.

During one of the few interactions we see of Madonsela with her family, she’s having lunch with her son and daughter, she orders salmon and stir fry, she tries to talk a little about soccer but the conversation leads nowhere and by the end we’re treated to a montage of her holding hands with her daughter as she waxes lyrical about how motherhood is a test of leadership. The whole thing comes off as insincere and staged.

The lack of personal insight into her life deprives us of an opportunity to understand what informs her thirst for the truth.

In the times she’s interviewed, the setting is always formal, controlled and ultimately a kind of performance, and the film fails to deliver on the candour it promises.

Whispering Truth to Power reduces the Office of the Public Protector to being that of a solo act.

But it’s the film’s insular focus on Madonsela vs Zuma that is its ultimate flaw. In latching on only to her handling of high-profile cases, Seedat deliberately relinquishes a chance to expand our understanding of how the Office of the Public Protector handles smaller, less prominent issues and by extension it confines our understanding of justice.

The assembly of archive, found and news footage into an approximate timeline of the happenings at her office during her tenure as Public Protector reads more like a university level video essay than a documentary about one of the defining figures of South Africa’s post-94 politics.

Whispering Truth to Power treats Madonsela’s virtues as inherent, inexplicable and ultimately beyond reproach. This lack of critique is what makes the film neither analytically brilliant or morally passionate.