Namibia's Cinema: Paths to Freedom
by Sherif Awad
Among the important documentaries screened at the 4th Luxor African Film Festival last week, the Namibian documentary Paths to Freedom that retells the long road walked by Namibian generations towards their country’s independence in 1990.
Namibia became a German colony in 1884 and was known as German South-West Africa. From 1904 to 1907, the native tribes of Herero and Namaqua took up arms against the Germans only to be exterminated in violent genocides by the German occupiers. The survivors, when finally released from detention, were subjected to a policy of dispossession, deportation, forced labour, racial segregation and discrimination in a system that in many ways anticipated apartheid. Some historians have speculated that the German genocide in Namibia was a model used by Nazis in the Holocaust.
South Africa occupied the colony in 1915 after defeating the German force during World War I and so Namibia was referred to as South-West Africa. During the 1960s, when European powers granted independence to their colonies and trust territories in Africa, pressure mounted on South Africa to do so in Namibia. In response to the 1966 ruling by the International Court of Justice, South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) military wing, People's Liberation Army of Namibia, began their armed struggle for independence. This is the start point of Paths to Freedom, whose director Richard Pakleppa uses powerful archival photographs and footage and interviews with the protagonists of the following events to retrace the struggle against Apartheid South Africa.
“I tried to trace the origins of nationalism in Namibia as peasants and contract workers organized themselves and rebelled against being slaves in their own country”, explained Pakleppa who came to present his documentary in the festival. “My film’s narratives are told against the historical contexts of German and South African colonization of Namibia and the United Nations’ responsibility for Namibia and then the emergence of the national liberation movement SWAPO. In the film, we see how South African police detected the guerrillas and started tracking their activities. Recently declassified documents reveal how the South Africans recruited a high ranking SWAPO commander to betray his comrades. The film also shows the eruption of armed conflict in August 1966 when the South Africans launched an airborne attack on the guerrilla camp. A reign of terror and mass arrests followed. After unspeakable torture, the guerrillas were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in Robben Island while the guerrilla war against South Africa continued until independence in 1990. Women guerrillas like Lahya Lyambo, Justina Amalwa and SWAPO leaders including Toivo ya Toivo and Presidents Nujoma and Pohamba spoke to Richard Pakleppa’s camera describing their memories with their own words. Pakleppa has directed and produced award-winning documentaries and fiction films in Southern Africa since 1990. His work has been screened at international film festivals and broadcast on NBC, SABC, the Finnish YLE, the Japanese NKV, Dutch Television, the Portuguese RTP and the French Arte. Prior to working as a film-maker Richard worked as a camera assistant, studied philosophy and psychology and worked as an activist in youth groups in the Western Cape between 1983 and 1986. From 1987 to 1990 he worked full-time in the Namibian trade union movement.
At the closing night of the festival, Paths to Freedom deservedly won the Best Artistic Achievement Prize. In the film, while using archive stills and poetic narration, the director inserted sound effects related to the texture of the images (sounds of mining on photos of miners, sound effects of shooting on photos depicting battles and so on) which resurrected the historical events on the screen.