Northern European Films, South African Films

An Act of Defiance: a hard-hitting, confrontational film about personal courage and the fight for justice

Jean van de Welde, “An Act of Defiance” (2017)

Quite a hard-hitting and confrontational film this historical drama on the incidents and trial that sent political activist Nelson Mandela to prison for nearly 30 years turns out to be, with a focus on the barrister who defended Mandela and his co-defendants in the trial and how his own life was turned upside-down as a result. In 1963, Mandela and his inner circle of black African and Jewish activists in the African National Congress are arrested at Lillesleaf Farm in Rivonia, in Johannesburg, on charges of conspiring to commit sabotage. Lawyer Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller) reluctantly agrees to defend Mandela and the other activists at their trial in spite of his own connections with the African National Congress through the outlawed South African Communist Party; indeed, some of the documents seized by police at Lillesleaf Farm are actually in his own handwriting. Mandela urges his co-defendants to plead not guilty to the charges of high treason, punishable by the death penalty, and appeals to them and their legal counsel to put the South African government on trial during their trial over the system of apartheid blanketing the country’s institutions that denies non-white people the same rights, privileges and freedoms as white people have.

As the trial progresses, Bram Fischer’s sympathies with the defendants are called into question, especially when the legal counsel for the prosecution reveals his link to Mandela’s inner circle, and Fischer and his family are subjected to harassment by the police. While his wife Molly and their children support Fischer and his desire to see justice done – incidentally only two of Fischer’s three children are portrayed in the film – the Rivonia trial has a huge impact on all their lives, even after cross-examination ends, the judge delivers the verdict and the sentence, and Mandela and his fellow co-defendants are forced to return to prison; over the next few years, strange incidents suggestive of continuing government and police harassment occur in the family’s lives which result in tragedy and Fischer’s own arrest, trial, sentencing and imprisonment.

The tone of the film is very sober yet matter-of-fact. Initially it is slow and little of note happens until the trial begins. Then the pace and the tension are relentless as the trial grinds away, wearing down Fischer and his legal team. Relief at the verdict when it comes, is but very short-lived as the film details the consequences of Fischer’s involvement in the Rivonia Trial on him, Molly and other members of his family. The acting is good and consistent if fairly minimal.

While highlighting the role that members of the South African Jewish community played in fighting apartheid alongside Mandela and other black Africans, the film does little to show the support non-white people might have demonstrated for Fischer and the hostility he and his family might have faced from their own Afrikaner community. Divisions among the whites in their attitudes toward the Rivonia Trial and its participants could also have been shown. Ironically, for all the emphasis the film places on how South African Jewish individuals worked with black people to fight apartheid, most black characters in the film are basically passive bystanders. Without the overall political context that was South Africa in the early 1960s, viewers outside the country who have little knowledge of its history before the 1990s will not be able to appreciate the depth of hatred and enmity against Bram Fischer for defending Mandela and the activists from the government and its institutions, the huge risks he took in doing so and the sacrifices he was forced to make later. The film highlights how the search for justice and the advancement of society demand considerable personal courage from individuals who, all too often, end up being persecuted and suffer great personal tragedy.