Long Night’s Journey into Day - Frances Reid, Deborah Hoffman, 2000
To what extent can a human being forgive the killing of her beloved ones? Why should one chose amnesty instead of punishment, forgiveness in the place of revenge?
A sensitive and haunting look into the functioning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, The Long Night’s Journey into Day documents four cases of violent killings in apartheid-ruled South Africa. It starts rather unexpectedly with the killing of a young white anti-apartheid American activist by an enraged black man with no knowledge of his victim. The reaction of the young woman’s parents, who decide to continue her work in South Africa and come to meet the killer’s family in an attempt of healing through forgiveness, is one of the most successful outcomes of this whole reconciliation process. We sense that, by this measure, each and every instance of success is invaluable.
In the stories that follow, the victims are alternately black and white, while the perpetrators are either apartheid officials or national liberation fighters. The perpetrators’ testimonies range from acknowledging the facts, owning the guilt and apologizing, to acknowledging the facts but not seeing any guilt (contradicting therefore the main purpose of the declaration) to denying the victims’ description of the facts. The victims who do not get any moral acknowledgement, let alone apologies, are likely to question the purpose of this whole process, as not only there is no real benefit for them, but they need to uncover painful memories. This is one of the aspects the commission has been criticized for.
The film speaks to us on several levels: an informative one, a moral and philosophical one, a psychological and emotional one. We are informed, put in the context of the facts, meeting the victims and the perpetrators. Their testimonies and apologies (at times) bring the moral notions into discussion: Is the political motivation enough for an excuse? To what extent the political is often overcome by a personal uncontrollable rage? How would the criteria of a “proportional relationship between the political objective and the violations” apply in each context? On the psychological and emotional level, we face the victims’ reactions to the perpetrators’ testimonies, their turmoil in going from reliving the hell of the past to the reality of the men in front of them, and the ordeal of putting a long postponed cry of despair into words of forgiveness. We can’t help but ask ourselves: are we ready to empathize with the perpetrators of violence, see them as human, forgive them for the killings we just acknowledged? We watch them going back to their homes, churches, families, getting on with their lives. Can we (who are not the victims!) put all these together, without a feeling of frustration and un-accomplishment? Once we get to these questions, we touch on the controversy of the whole TRC process, of the stated choice of restorative justice over retributive justice, of its distancing from a prosecution process.
The movie suggests a compelling answer to these questions: it is possible, we can do this, as being all human, and therefore fundamentally the same with the group of mothers who, with tears in their eyes, tell their son’s killer they forgive him; or like the white couple who embraced the family of the young man who killed their daughter. Although not in our comfort zone (as I continue to believe that the first human reaction to such a violence is of revenge and fight back), our ability to transcend our primal reaction, to reach out through our humanity, is still there ready to be activated, with a bit effort of overcoming our atavistic condition. As some of the people interviewed in the movie point out, including Arch. Desmond Tutu who put forth this concept, there is a cathartic value to the process of acknowledging facts and guilt, for both victim and perpetrator. There is a potential of human transformation through this, towards a larger goal of learning the history and not repeating it. Talking about what affected her most during the making of this film, Deborah Hoffman said in an interview taken by Donna Carter: “Meeting just these wonderful, and terrible people, and meeting these commissioners and meeting these perpetrators and realizing they were just, at each extreme, they really were just regular people. At a certain point they either made the decision to be incredibly weak and stupid, or they made the decision to be incredibly committed, and they made a difference.
I just came away being incredibly inspired and I realized that we all have a lot more power in the course of the world than I understood before.”