Film Review: 28 Up South Africa

What happens when you take six kids from diverse backgrounds from all over South Africa, and film them every seven years?

You get a pretty darn good documentary, that’s what.

Last Thursday, December 11, the World Bank’s Africa Film Series showed a screening of 28 UP South Africa. The film, directed by South African filmmaker Angus Gibson, forms a beautiful, if sometimes heartbreaking study of humanity as these children grow up in the post-apartheid era. The Guardian called it a “hymn to the human spirit.” And it was.

This film formed the 4th in South Africa’s Up series. At 28, the ‘children’ are now full-fledged adults. Willem, Lizette, Katlego, Olwethu, Luyanda, and Andiswa come from all backgrounds: white, black, rich, poor, middle class, slums, city, country, etc. As they share their stories on camera, you cannot help but feel yourself sharing in their joys and their sorrows.

Willem represents a wealthy, Afrikaans background. Lizette is a middle class white South African. Katlego’s father was a famous soccer player who used his fortunes to send his boy to a mostly white private school. Olwethu, a spunky, spirited young women works tirelessly to make her dreams come true. Luyanda and Andiswa grew up mostly in the slums, and have so many hurdles to overcome. Each story is complex and challenges any assumptions you may have about post-apartheid South Africa.

There is no Slumdog Millionaire story of a poor kid overcoming poverty and finding his true love to make it to happily ever after. It’s a documentary, after all. It tries to show life as it is. Nonetheless, the film makes you connect with the storytellers, and root for them as you would for your favorite sports team, hoping that they’ll triumph. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they start to, and then something happens that knocks everything out from under them.

The film does not sugarcoat the real struggles that these young people have experienced. Yet it shows how people find hope in the midst of this. How they carry on, and how they seek to find reasons to smile through life’s challenges. I can’t say that it’s a feel-good film, but it is a very good one. I hope the project can continue, and I hope to see more of its kind pop up around the world.

After the film, Mr. Gibson spoke about the process of making the film, and answered questions from the audience. It turns out that although six people made the cut for this version of the film, the project started with 20 kids from around the country. Four have since died from HIV/AIDS. Three declined to continue with the film. The 2.5 hour version with the remaining 13 stories can be found on Al Jazeera.

Audience members asked Mr. Gibson if this film was being shown to spark conversations in South Africa about healing, justice, reconciliation, and development. He responded that a few universities have screened it. But apart from that, there isn’t much of a culture of watching documentaries in South Africa. When one audience participant asked what the biggest takeaway for him as a director was, he spoke passionately about the need for a better education system.

This film speaks to the power of stories, and how multiple first-person narratives paint a rich, complex picture. Post-apartheid South Africa has made a lot of progress. If you take the people in the film seriously, you’ll see that there are still many challenges to overcome.  

Watch the trailer here:

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