Established by the post-apartheid government in 1995, the TRC is charged with moving South Africa towards healing by inviting individuals, black and white, to tell the truth about their roles in apartheid-related crimes. In return for their revelations--which they deliver in a public forum that relatives of the victims are encouraged to attend-the perpetrators of violence can receive amnesty, as long as the Commission feels that their disclosures have been complete and truthful.
Some have spoken out against the TRC, saying the body is too lenient; others think it only forces victims to relive horrors best left in the past. Directors Reid and Hoffmann let viewers decide for themselves, using interviews, film of the TLC hearings, news and location footage that focus on the facts.
These constantly varying perspectives give the viewer feeling of omniscience, a balance of viewpoint that communicates the complexity of the cases, forcing us to think about all aspects of the South African reality. The Biehl family tells the story of how they came to South Africa to support the amnesty application of the man who killed their daughter, Amy, a white American Fullbright scholar. We feel tremendous sympathy for them, and admire their gesture of forgiveness to the black man who murdered Amy during a street riot in Capetown.
Later, there are uneasy moments as we watch the Biehls visit the man's family, the camera does not miss the loud American affluence of their clothes, and the stark contrast of the South African family' s modest garments and poor living conditions.
The camera catches the pride of an anti-apartheid activist's widow in the thrust of her chin, her mixture of grief and defiance as she describes how her husband's funeral grew into a public protest attended by thousands of villagers. One of his kidnappers, a white ex-officer in the South African security forces, tells how he felt justified when he helped commit the murder, only to change his mind after seeing the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning," and reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography. Nontheless, the dead man's widow questions his murderers absolution.
Indeed, there is more truth than reconciliation in the film. The sister of a woman killed by an African National Committee bomb seethes, staring with barely concealed hatred at the car bomber during his TRC testimony. The bomber, Robert McBride, was arrested, but when the ANC came to power, he was released. He has come to the tribunal to apologize to the families of the three women he killed, but the sister seriously questions his remorse, and the viewer's memory of her is of a woman with her arms folded, her eyes narrowed, her lips pinched and tense. Sympathy inevitably goes to the victims, to the women who lost their sons ("Look at me," one emaciated mother demands of an informer responsible for several deaths, "I used to be fat!").
Is the TRC's highly emotional, cathartic approach to justice succeeding in bringing peace and healing to the victims of apartheid's crimes? Again, the film does not give a judgment. Its effectiveness lies in this open-endedness, which lets us form our own opinions about the issues it raises, and the rewards--and price--of embracing truth as a method of healing.