April 30, 2005
Born into Struggle, 2004
Part first-hand historical testament on South African anti-apartheid movement and part essay confessional (or perhaps even emotional exorcism) on the filmmaker and activist, Rehad Desai's absence during the formative years of his own son's life, Born into Struggle is an intimate and provocative examination of the personal legacy and intangible familial toll caused by the patriarch, Barney Desai's political activism and consuming obsession towards the struggle for freedom in his beloved homeland. A leading figure in the South African Coloured People's Congress during the 1960s (and subsequent leader in the Pan-Africanist Congress in the 1990s), Barney Desai would continue his campaign for equal justice even while in exile in England, working as an advocate for minority clients who found themselves running afoul with the police (most notably, during the labor strikes of the 1970s) and documenting the torture and death of West Cape activist and Muslim elder Imam Haron while under police detention in 1969 through the publication of the book, The Killing of the Imam: South African Tyranny Defied by Courage and Faith. However, Barney Desai's exacting and tireless dedication would have repercussions on the Desai family: a daughter conceals her childhood molestation by a family friend from her parents for fear that her father's already demoralized emotional state following his exile would sink him further into depression (a subconscious suppression that would lead to an abusive relationship in her adult life); an older son has completely estranged himself from his family and politics, rejecting his father's academic intellectualism by refraining from obtaining a college education against his father's advice; a younger son redirects his rage and sense of emotional abandonment through escalating drug addiction and the harassment and brutalization of other ethnic and religious minorities. In contrast to the affirming portrait of familial solidarity and commitment to the national struggle presented in A South African Love Story: Walter and Albertine Sisulu, what emerges in Rehad Desai's sincere and articulate exposition is a portrait of conflicted emotion, haunted memory, and residual estrangement. In this respect, the Desai children's sentiment towards their father's conscious estrangement from his family in the final months of his life during the formation of the transitional post-apartheid government recalls the lingering ambivalence of Miklòs Gimes and his mother, Lucy in the personal documentary, Mutter, in which the patriarch's image as a national hero becomes equally difficult to reconcile with his own personal failings as a husband and father (Barney Desai's wife similarly alludes to the possibility of his extramarital affairs during his many trips away from home). In the end, what emerges in Born into Struggle is not only a fascinating tale of one family's decades long, multinational campaign for equal rights, but more importantly, a provocative and insightful portrait of personal reconciliation and the intangible, human cost of freedom.