I made three films in South Africa and interviewed Nelson Mandela for two of them,but I was always intrigued by Winnie, and felt a little unsettled by the adulation that was poured on her husband, while she was cast as the fallen woman. Charlie Mingus’s 1963 masterpiece, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ seemed to capture the essence of their legacy, in the album title. Her reputation amongst people I encountered in Europe and the States was unshakably negative. And yet in South Africa, and not only in the townships, Winnie was loved and respected and she continued to live among her people in Soweto.
As I tried to square that love on the ground with the portraits I found, in journalistic biographies and BBC investigative documentaries, which so over-determined a Western view of her, I became more and more fascinated by the wide chasm between the two. Something was amiss. A story needed telling. And I’d go into the dark side of the Mandela story to find it.
The timing for an approach to Winnie had to be right. My Sowetan partner, Peter Makurube, counseled that we wait until she completed her mourning, a year after Nelson Mandela was buried.
It was clear that I was not making a puff-piece and needed to get close enough to Winnie, to peel away the layers of story-ing that inevitably accompany a long and dramatic life. Her daughter Zindzi was our first port of call and as she gained confidence, trust was established. I interviewed Winnie four times over a period of two years and was able to peel away the layers, to get closer and closer to the truth of her experience, her emotions and her politics.
At the same time, I interviewed a whole host of her friends and collaborators, but also tracked down her enemies and began unraveling a story involving psychological warfare and other dirty-tricks campaigns. I came to the conclusion that she and Nelson Mandela were two sides of the same powerful coin and something terrible had been done to them.