After the death of his stepfather, artist and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris searches for a greater understanding of the life of the man he could never call “father” in the documentary The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela. Pule Benjamin Leinaeng, known as Lee to his friends and family, was one of the first wave of South African exiles who left his home country in 1960 to fight apartheid, eventually leading him to the Bronx and into Harris’ family.
The search for information about Lee’s past leads Harris to a photograph of the “Bloemfontein Twelve,” a group of South African students, including Lee, who joined together to keep the anti-apartheid movement alive from East Africa, Europe, America and Cuba. Harris seeks out the surviving members, who called them themselves the Disciples of Nelson Mandela, and mixes interviews with dramatic reenactments of their adventures to create a unique journey into the life of a mysterious man.
Harris’ film is thematically similar to the 2003 doc My Architect, director Nathaniel Kahn’s critically acclaimed effort to learn about the deceased father he barely knew. In both films, father and son reach a posthumous reconciliation after conversations with friends, family and colleagues reveal a man much more complex and conflicted than either son could have realized. But whereas Kahn’s film frames his father’s life within his career as an architect, Harris uses the surviving disciples to learn not only about his father, but also about his cultural history.
“The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela is a story about family and displacement,” Harris says. “A son’s relationship to a father, and a father’s relationship to a fatherland. I wanted to reconnect with Lee by way of the men who were bonded to him by a common political, historical and emotional journey. It was only in the process of making this film that I realized just how much I was his son.”
The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela had its broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series P.O.V. on Tuesday, September 19. The film is a co-production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS), in association with American Documentary/P.O.V. and the National Black Programming Consortium.
This article was published in the Summer 2006 issue of Filmmaker Magazine.