Interview with Thomas Allen Harris- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Interview with Thomas Allen Harris

Director of "Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela"

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(Continued from page 1)

A. Yes, initially, the government provided much less money for the education of blacks and coloreds. But with apartheid, they sought to completely disenfranchise the black community. The Bantu education system was based on the idea that the highest level a black person could achieve was to be a servant in a white person's house, or a miner.

Q. A voice-over in the film says that under apartheid one had to either rise up or be buried. Is that Lee's voice we are hearing?

A. Lee came to the United States in 1967 to become a political TV journalist. He was locked out of mainstream journalism, but he kept amazing archives. He archived his radio scripts, all his papers, photography, the short films he made of his exile community. Anytime anyone interviewed him, he would try to keep that audiotape. And in 1989, a filmmaker interviewed him.

So three years into my making this film, my mother found the audiotape. And you can imagine if I hadn't started this film, I never would've looked for this tape. That's how my filmmaking process goes. I begin a journey. I'm not sure where the journey's going to take me—I have an idea but I don't have a set script—I allow for the possibility of finding things along the way because any journey is going to reveal things that one does not know. It's like life. Well, I found this tape, and his voice has become the skeleton of the entire film.

Q. Lee married your mother, Rudean, in 1976. Did they meet while he was studying communications at New York University?

A. He met her before, during a visit to New York. She was very aware of African issues. And she was impressed by him and liked the way he danced.

Q. You've said that early on, you thought of him as a handsome revolutionary who taught you about the horrors of apartheid and the imprisoned leader of the ANC. Why did you later reject Lee as a father?

A. He was a traditional South African father; I was an American son. When you have multicultural families, it's not easy. And we each came with our own baggage. I had been abandoned by my biological father and wasn't very trusting. The irony is that I was of two minds and hearts. When I was in South Africa, I realized, my God, I've come here to say goodbye to my father. Emotionally, I was in denial about our linkage, the depths of it. I was fighting him to a degree, but on another level I was following him. I became a TV journalist and fulfilled a lot of those dreams.

Q. When you were filming him at the house in the Bronx on Father's Day, 1999, he seemed to exude both warmth and distance. Did he keep a distance between himself and others, and did you find that to be the case with other exiles?

A. I think there is a lot of pain in exile, and, yes, there was distance. We couldn't fully understand him, even though we loved him. And, ultimately, when he went back to South Africa, he couldn't just stay in South Africa, because nearly 30 years of his life was here with us. He kept going back and forth, even though my mother moved there with him, because he was vested in both places.

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