South African freedom fighter and justice Albie Sachs is the subject of a Berkeley filmmaker's latest project.
South African freedom fighter Albie Sachs is the subject of a Berkeley filmmaker’s latest project. Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg
South African freedom fighter Albie Sachs is the subject of a Berkeley filmmaker’s latest project. Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg

Berkeley filmmaker Abby Ginzberg first met Albie Sachs in San Francisco in the 1970s, when the white South African anti-apartheid attorney visited San Francisco. At the time, Ginzberg was a law student at Hastings and a member of the Lawyer’s Guild, which was charged with hosting Sachs, who was there to meet with other activists. A few decades later, Ginzberg is showing Sachs around the Bay Area once again, but this time he’s on screen, as the central figure in her new film “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.”

Sachs’ story — and the story of many who were targets of, or fought to end, apartheid — is one of intense hardship and perseverance. He is the victim of imprisonment, torture, and an assassination attempt that left him with one arm. Footage of the attack is included in the film, along with an interview with the South African military intelligence agent responsible for it. Ginzberg — a prolific filmmaker who has made more than 30 documentaries in as many years — rounded up an impressive group of people eager to talk about the remarkable Sachs and the vital freedom movement in which he played an integral role.

“Soft Vengeance” is a film about apartheid-era South Africa — and takes place also in England and Mozambique, where Sachs divided his 24 years of exile — but its application is global, and contemporary. Throughout the film, Sachs levies harsh indictments against solitary confinement, the death penalty, and torture — and demonstrates the necessity of solidarity and a certain spirit of positivity in all political movements.

Upon returning to a liberated South Africa, Sachs helped write the nation’s new constitution and was appointed to the court by Nelson Mandela. A leader in the fight to abolish a regime, Sachs was consequently tasked with helping build a new one. And he did so with great thoughtfulness, and a focus on working toward a just future rather than avenging an unjust past. “If we get democracy in South Africa, and freedom, that will be my soft vengeance,” said Sachs, who is now 79.

“Soft Vengeance” is a call to action and an educational film, but it is also, simply, a captivating story. That’s no accident; Sachs demanded that the movie have a “lyrical quality,” the filmmaker said in a Q&A following a San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening at the Castro Theater. The film comes to the East Bay for its second festival screening Sunday, Aug. 10, at 4:25 p.m. at the Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Ave., in Oakland.

Berkeleyside sat down with Ginzberg to discuss the making and message of her film.

In your view, what is special about Sachs’ approach to fighting for justice?

You mean why would I bother to make a film about him? Well, I think one of the things about Albie that makes him different than the rest of us is that he’s really been challenged. I can talk about “I wouldn’t want to take revenge” but I haven’t had anything terrible happen to me at the level he has. It was knowing that he was serious about a different approach to “avenging” what happened to him — and what happened to him was more than just being blown up. It was solitary confinement, it was being forced into exile, it was his whole life as a South African fighting for the end of apartheid. Given all of that, I felt like he models something that the rest of world needs. It would be helpful for the Egyptians to have an approach like Albie’s. It would be helpful for the Gazans and the Israelis to have it today.

Sachs on the one hand displays a certain level of forgiveness towards the oppressors, but on the other is clearly not willing to gloss over the very real history. Can you talk about his attitude toward the concepts of forgiveness and amnesty?

Albie says, “We had to find a way to move forward. We weren’t going to get there if we locked all these people up and there was a complete rift in the country.” It was almost like it was expedient in a way not to punish everybody. What makes Albie’s story interesting when he’s confronted by the person responsible for the bombing [that almost killed him], is he doesn’t see this as an act of forgiveness. This is an act of healing South Africa. It’s not forgiveness in his lexicon.

Albie talks about the struggle to rebuild his body after the bomb, and the film ends with efforts to rebuild a broken nation. At the Castro screening, you said, “The issue of economic inequality in this country and in SA are completely on the same track.” What struggle remains in South Africa, and can you elaborate on its connection to ours?

The big change in South Africa is a growing middle and political class of black Africans. So if you look at who’s in charge of the various national agencies, they’re all staffed by black Africans, some of whom were part of the struggle, some of whom weren’t. The president, Jacob Zuma, was a freedom fighter, but now he’s using a lot of the national coffers to rebuild his own house. And there is a lot of dismay and distrust and anger about that. The issue of inequality in the two countries is both different and a little bit similar; what we’re facing is a very similar disparity in income levels.

In this country, we haven’t seen such a major transition with black people in charge of things and certainly they have not become rich in a way they have in South Africa. In the old days in South Africa, obviously the rich people were white. But nobody’s really taking on the issue of how we’re going to get to greater income equality in South Africa. How are we going to pay miners a living wage, how are we going to get better housing? There is not a new movement that has really adequately addressed this yet. There will have to be. Just like in this country. I think we’re seeing little indications of it with the minimum wage fight in this country. I don’t have an answer for what they need to do any more than I have an answer for what we need to do, but it needs to become the basis of a new set of a demands.

What is clear, in spite of income inequality, is black people feel like they’re free now. They do not feel like they’re enslaved. In the old days it was just like it was in the south. You had to cross the street to avoid walking past a white person.

From left: Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Vanessa September (Sachs' wife), and Albie Sachs. Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg
From left: Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Vanessa September (Sachs’ wife), and Albie Sachs. Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg
From left: Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Vanessa September (Sachs’ wife), and Albie Sachs. Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg

What was it like to screen the film in South Africa?

People like the film. And for young South Africans, this is history that they don’t know, and it enables them to get it fast, in an encapsulated form. They get to meet some people, both black and white, that they haven’t heard of, who were part of their own struggle. I mean, kids in this country don’t know who Lyndon Johnson is! It’s seriously pathetic. We’re in parity in terms of not having any historical knowledge among young people.

I guess a movie’s probably a good way quickly captivate them.

Damn right it is! That’s really clear. This is how people absorb information, this is how people communicate with each other. We’ve had no problem getting young people to sit through the film, because they feel connected to it in some way. And they like meeting Albie, a one-armed, nice man. There’s a certain warmth that really has surrounded all these screenings in South Africa.

You interviewed an impressive roster of people: Writer Nadine Gordimer, who recently died, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Was it difficult to get any of these people to speak for the film, and was there any one interview you particularly enjoyed?

I always feel, and this is true in every film that I do, that I get to meet somebody who’s been a hero of mine in one way or another. It’s always an honor. It’s always a bit of work to get these people. But when you’re actually sitting there doing the interview, you always feel like you’re on hallowed ground. The honor started with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who did the interview because she really, really likes Albie. Nadine and Ruth are similar in that they’re both older Jewish women who have a soft spot in their heart for Albie. So my line has been that Albie does well with Jewish women of a certain age.

Bishop Tutu was a bit of a piece of work to get, because he was never available when I was in South Africa. So I begged his people to let me come interview him when he was on some R&R thing on Long Island. He gave me great stuff. And the minute the interview was over he was way friendlier. They’re so used to being interviewed that you have to be careful not to waste their time. So interviewing Bishop Tutu was really great, and it was even better when the interview was done. Because then he was extremely friendly, and wanted to have a drink. Nadine also — everyone wants to have a drink with everyone.

How did you get Henri Van Der Westhuizen [who attempted to assassinate Sachs] to agree to be interviewed?

Reaching Henri Van Der Westhuizen was not a simple matter. Initially, I googled him, and his name came up on LinkedIn. So I upgraded my LinkedIn status so I could send an email. I wrote to a guy with this name and said, “I’m making a film about Albie Sachs and I’d very much like to interview you about your experience in the South African military intelligence, particularly around the time there was an assassination attempt against Albie that resulted in his losing his arm.” I get back an email saying, “I’m 31 years old, I don’t know who Albie Sachs is, and I never tried to assassinate anybody.”

Eventually, we found an email for the real Henri. He agreed to be interviewed. He answered my questions. He was not forthcoming. He’s a bit of a reserved guy. And I was very uptight about that interview. We both conducted ourselves professionally. He wasn’t trying to turn himself into somebody he’s not, or to make me like him. He was trying to share what he’d done and why he’d done it. I think he thinks he deserves a little more credit than he got for actually going to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because many people like him didn’t go.

Sachs speaks at an African National Congress conference in 1985. Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg
Sachs speaks at an African National Congress conference in 1985. Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg

Albie and Justice Ginsburg talk about how his Judaism informed his dedication to social justice and fighting oppression. For you, is there any significance in screening this film at the Jewish Film Festival during the current conflict in Gaza?

I actually showed the film in Israel, to a class, sponsored by the guy who had been the Israeli ambassador to South Africa. He really wanted me to do it. I learned when I was there how this film plays in Israel, which is that young people who wish like hell they were part of a really strong peace movement find this film a little bit depressing. They miss having a clear movement that’s leading the charge against war in the occupied territories. I think the film does have resonance for Jews on the side of peace in the Middle East, and on the side of social justice in the United States. I don’t think that this film has a direct relationship to what’s going on right now in Israel and Gaza, but it provides a different level of discussion: Isn’t there some way to do business other than straight bombing each other? But the goal was never to see the film as a piece of the dialogue in the Middle East.

I think what the film tries to do is help people think differently about how do you resolve structural conflicts so that we’re not dealing with imprisonment, assassination, or violence in the streets as a way of helping our transition to democracy. Albie really says it when he talks about torture in the film. What do you do to yourself when you become an instrument of violence? You better think about the country you want to create and the world in which you want to live, and not use means that are completely antithetical to the end goal. Albie and I, just FYI, we’re not going back until we can take the film through both Israel and the West Bank.

Did the story that you thought you were telling change at any point?

One theme and truth that emerged immediately was the fact that I had to be very careful about not overdoing Albie’s role in the struggle, or as a great man in history. That he really had to be contextualized in the struggle for the end of apartheid. That guided me. Another thing that I started out not understanding is I think I missed – because there were so many dark times – the joy of being part of a movement. There is a sense of cohesion and “this is what we have to do.” There’s something very special about that that kept people’s spirits up, even in the face of a lot of other bleak experiences, and a lot of assassinations and murders. Inherent in this movement was the spirit of optimism. This film tries to find that spirit.

What’s next for you?

My next film is called Agents of Change, and it’s about the impact of the student movement on college campuses, and the demand for black and ethnic studies at both SF State and Cornell. It’s a really great story that really hasn’t been told. This is another piece of our civil rights history. My co-producer Frank Dawson teaches at Santa Monica College. It will resonate with what’s going on at college campuses today — all the racist stuff that happens to black students today, in terms of the questions that get asked and the assumptions that get made. It’s hard to believe that 45 years later things aren’t much better, but I think the lived experience for black students is it often isn’t.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...