Though we as a society have arguably become more desensitised to depictions of conflict and violence, every now and then a film comes along that challenges this notion. Rehad Desai's distressing Sheffield Doc/Fest opener Miners Shot Down (2014) is one of the most recent examples. We're used to seeing running street battles in distant revolting nations on the evening news, but seemingly unprovoked massacres of ordinary civilians are another kettle of fish entirely. Depicting the horrifying shooting of 34 South African miners by police forces of the establishment in August 2012, Desai forces his audience to confront the reality that black-on-black violence is still sadly prevalent.Six days before the shooting, South Africa's biggest platinum mines began a wildcat strike for improved wages but were swiftly rebuffed by those in power. Several stand-offs between the mine workers and armed police tragically culminated in the use of live ammunition to brutally suppress the strike, killing many and injuring many more (78 according to reports). Using the point of view of the Marikana miners through footage from the time and interviews with surviving protesters, Miners Shot Down follows the strike from day one, showing the courageous but isolated uprising waged by a group of low-paid workers against the combined and colluding forces of the British-registered mining company Lonmin, the ANC government and their allies in the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers).
Though conventional in its approach - those anticipating the next Act of Killing should looks to Göran Hugo Olsson's Concerning Violence - the sheer unwillingness to negotiate projected by those opposed to the strike proved to be incendiary. Using controversial techniques such as 'kettling' (seen in this country during the student protests of 2010 despite being ruled lawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004), battle-ready gunmen harangued the largely illiterate miners, whose only desire was to speak to those in charge face-to-face in order to return to work. As one interviewee explains, mining was not a calling but rather the sole option available to some of the region's poorest, uneducated black citizens. Exploiting this lack of schooling, a Lonmin representative is shown waving a piece of paper in front of one of the protest's ringleaders, who has already explained that he is unable to read. Such Catch-22 scenarios are common, we're told, as is the use of excessive force in quashing civil unrest.
Uncompromising in its chilling depiction of the extremities of police brutality, Desai's laudable Miners Shot Down serves as a vital reminder that, for all his impossible achievements, even the late Nelson Mandela could not mend all of South Africa's social fractures. A dramatic example of this comes with the outrageous sycophancy of NUM founder Cyril Ramaphosa, a close friend of Mandela and now Deputy President to Jacob Zuma, who appears unwilling to criticise the National Union despite their inability to act in time to prevent the massacre. This corruption of Mandela's legacy is expertly exposed by Desai, himself a former political exile and a passionate voice in dissident South African filmmaking.
Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.