A Common Purpose

Art Press Release from Australia. Published by Rebecca Gabrielle Cannon on Tuesday 08 May 2012.

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Last week, as the William Kentridge: Five Themes exhibition entered its final month at ACMI, we headed into the cinema with human rights lawyer and activist Andrea Durbach for a special screening of A Common Purpose.

Reflecting the themes of the Kentridge exhibition, the documentary follows South African born Durbach, now director of the Australian Human Rights Council, as she returns to her homeland to meet with her clients from the landmark Upington trial in 1985.

The trial, a battle for justice during a time in South Africa’s history when Apartheid was at its most violent, saw 25 men and women from a black township bordering the town of Upington tried for the murder of a local black policeman. Upington, a small white town located in the heart of Afrikaner nationalism, was besieged by the legal proceedings, which culminated in the assassination of Namibian barrister and human rights advocate, Anton Lubowski as well as the exile of the young, white lawyer, Durbach, who represented the 25 accused.

These events are movingly recounted by independent journalist John Carlin, the accused, and Durbach, who returns to South Africa to meet her former clients 18 years later and to discover how the trial and the new democratic South Africa has shaped the lives of both the accused and their legal team.

A Common Purpose also examines the at-times distorted South African legal system with an explosive and inspirational look at the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation hearings and the country’s slow transition to a post-Apartheid state.

Following the screening, Durbach was joined in conversation by the University of Melbourne’s Chris Healy. Together they discussed the significance of the trial in the broader history of South African Apartheid and they connected the poignant similarities between South Africa and Australia in how they have both approached and remembered their colonial pasts.

Connecting her experiences with Kentridge’s exhibition – the film was actually conceived when Durbach was introduced to the initial filmmakers at an MCA talk on Kentridge – the conversation between Durbach and Healy raised important issues about how the trial and its subsequent Tribunal wasn’t simply about reconciliation, but also about recognising the need for truth and justice within the reconciliation process.

Durbach was joined in closing by A Common Purpose director Mitzi Goldman as they took audience questions on their universal story of resilience and commitment to justice. Touching on the filmmaking process and exploring both the positive and problematic ways in which South Africa has developed since Apartheid and the Upington trials, both stressed the importance of accurate historical storytelling, and how these stories shape both the past and future.

- Shaun Larkin, Screen Events Coordinator, ACMI

William Kentridge: Five Themes is showing daily at ACMI until Sunday 27 May 2012.