Here be Dragons is a feature-length documentary film about lawyer George Bizos SC by DFA member, Odette Geldenhuys.
His life story is remarkable – from the teen that left behind Greek village life to escape the Nazis with his father, to the only South African human rights lawyer who has practiced as such for more than 50 years. Now almost 84, he still works at the Legal Resources Centre in downtown Johannesburg. Intimately the film explores his life, not only George as Mandela’s lawyer, but also George the gardener and storyteller. It reveals his humour despite tragic injustices, his humility despite having shaped the destiny of South Africa, and how the law became his sword to slay the dragons.
The film contains exclusive footage illustrating the friendship between George Bizos and Nelson Mandela, capturing the simplicity of life and the comfort that a life-long friendship brings at the end of long illustrious lives.
HERE BE DRAGONS IS A MOVING AND INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF GEORGE BIZOS. WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO MAKE A FILM ABOUT HIM AND HOW DID YOU GAIN SUCH CLOSE ACCESS TO HIM?
The initial and ultimate motivation for making a film about George Bizos differed. I was initially interested to find out about the real person behind the public persona; to find out about what makes him tick, how does he keep on going despite the overwhelming challenges. While some of this is revealed in the film, another motivation developed along the way, namely to explore the difference between law and justice.
Some years ago Bizos and I were colleagues at the Legal Resources Centre. I was in its national office and structurally / hierarchically his superior. During the first week in my post, I introduced myself to him, and quickly added, “I know I can’t be your boss, but you have to keep time sheets of the work you do”. He never adhered to my instructions. But I think coming from the same social justice background, he trusted my motives for wanting to make him the subject of a documentary film. He never asked to exercise any editorial control; and patiently waited for the final cut.
YOU REVEAL GEORGE BIZOS IN HIS LIFE ROLES AS A LAWYER, A FRIEND AND A FAMILY MAN. HIS SIMPLE WAY OF LIFE AND INTERESTS CONTRASTS WITH HIS REMARKABLE ACCOMPLISHMENTS, SHARP MEMORY AND INTELLECT. THESE NUANCES ARE FINELY BALANCED IN THE FILM. HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHAT TO USE OR DID YOU HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF HOW THE FILM WOULD LOOK?
I did not shoot the film in terms of a structure or an outline, and accordingly we shot a lot of footage. I also had access to a sizeable family archive, there is much in the archives of the SABC and the National Archives, and as a result I had a substantial amount of material to work with. The greatest praise goes to sympatico editor, Tonia Selley, who worked the material. She worked through all of the shot footage, because she believes to have done otherwise, would be to dishonour the subject. Once she had grouped the material according to seven broad themes, she cut various free-standing sequences within each of the themes. Choosing from these, our first rough cut was 2 ½ hours. With pain, joy and the input of others, we got to the final 86 minutes.
YOU MAKE USE OF SEVERAL DIFFERENT VISUAL RESOURCES – FROM MAPS, ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE, CARTOONS, TO OLD FAMILY HOME VIDEOS ETC. DID YOU GATHER ALL YOU COULD AND THEN DECIDE WHAT TO USE OR DID YOU HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF HOW THE FILM WOULD LOOK?
At the outset, I had two guide rules for the look and feel of the film: firstly, no talking heads interviews; and secondly I wanted to place Bizos in his wider social context. Often documentaries about professionals are as dry as their professions and their portrayal is somewhat one-dimensional, okay, maybe two-dimensional. [From this point onwards, I want to refer to “we”, as from edit stage it was a 100% collaborative effort with Tonia.] We wanted to give a sense not only of Bizos as an ordinary person, but also place him in the wider social context of the times. So for example while he does not listen to popular music; at the time he was working on the legal aftermath related to Steve Biko’s death, Peter Gabriel’s song Biko was a popular hit. At the outset there were key devices we wanted to use, such as Biko and Brenda Fassie’s Black President, but we did gather quite a bit and played around in the edit to see what would work.
I ENJOYED SHORT INSERTS SUCH AS THE ACROPOLIS CAFÉ SCENE, AND GEORGE BIZOS’ CONVERSATIONS, BUT FOUND SOME SCENES FROM A DRY WHITE SEASON SOMEHOW REMOVED ME FROM THE CHARACTER. WHAT GUIDED YOUR DECISION TO INCLUDE FOOTAGE FROM THIS FILM?
The excerpts from A Dry White Season are used as punctuation. They introduce certain content that reflects my POV. If the film had used the device of voice over or a presenter, those are the kinds of points that would have been made in voice over or by the presenter. On a more arcane note, when the producer of A Dry White Season was in South Africa for research purposes, someone – and it may have been Nadine Gordimer – said to her that she needs to meet George Bizos as he is the kind of lawyer to be portrayed in the film. We do not know whether her choice to cast Marlon Brando as the human rights lawyer, was made before or after she met Bizos. But there is a physical similarity between them, don’t you agree?
THERE IS MINIMAL GUIDING OF THE VIEWER IN TERMS OF VOICE OVER OR TEXT, AND EVENTS SHIFT BACK AND FORTH. DID YOU NOT HAVE CONCERNS ABOUT AN INTERNATIONAL OR OTHERWISE UNFAMILIAR AUDIENCE GETTING A BIT LOST?
Here be Dragons moves from Greece to South Africa and back, without an information strap advising the audience that they are now in the one place or the other. However, what was for us more important than in what place we find ourselves, was the thought or theme or idea represented by the scene. The film is also mainly chronological. But what links one scene to the next, is not necessarily that it followed chronologically in Bizos’ history, but there is a word play, a linking theme, or a visual link. Please excuse me if I sound defensive (I probably am), but I feel strongly that creative documentaries are not primarily educational tools. Therefore I do not believe that a creative documentary must teach the audience everything about the subject by way of voice-over and repetition. I further feel that it is important not to underestimate the intelligence of the consumers of creative documentaries.
I FOUND THE INTRODUCTION AND THE CONCLUSION VERY TOUCHING. HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON THEM?
As with the rest of the film, these two sequences presented themselves to us. The opening sequence not only immediately introduces the audience to George Bizos the unaffected, ordinary person, but it is symbolic too. It references birth (emerging from the waters), it references the ocean which is the journey he took as a child to get to South Africa, and it references the mythical dragons which live at the edge of the ocean in ancient maps (and in turn, the dragons reference the unknown, which is where Bizos went when he left Greece as a 12-year old). As I said earlier, quite unintentionally the film is quite chronological, and so it ends with him today – still working, still slaying the dragons on behalf of those who are vulnerable. It is quite remarkable, that now, at almost 84, Bizos is at the Marikana Commission, representing the families of men who died in the massacre. It fills me with utter humility.
IN RETROSPECT, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD ADD OR CHANGE?
I know what I would not have changed – my editor, Tonia Selley. For the rest, I guess, each documentary film has its own rhythm and logic; and I have valued the entire experience.
Here be Dragons will be broadcast in two parts on SABC 1 on:
Tuesday 23 October 2012 @ 21h00 and
Tuesday 30 October 2012 @ 21h00
Interviewed by Kate Alexandra Wood
Sasfed Member Organisation, NPO Number: 51-722, National Association Founded 2007 DFA PAIA Request Documents