AV Club: ‘Silverton Siege’ Explores Historical Event Amid Blockbusting Thriller

a political drama about the events that led to Mandela's release

Last month, ‘Silverton Siege’ a political drama about the events that led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison has been released on Netflix. The film’s maker Mandla Dube has previously explored racial tensions in his native South Africa. ‘Silverton Siege’ rests at the middle of a planned trilogy which began with 2016’s ‘Kalushi’, a biopic about the freedom fighter Solomon ‘Kalushi’ Mahlangu.

The last of the trilogy ‘The Rivonia Trial’ of Nelson Mandela expected to complete the project. When viewed together, Dube has created a gritty, affectionate collage from epic moments which, not so different from every nation’s story, is tinged with hope, despair, misjudgements and thrill.


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Aptly released on the nation’s Freedom Day (April 27th), ‘Silverton Siege’ was received by viewers on the continent with a flurry of attention. ‘Kalushi’ had performed well, among other honours, even winning Dube the Rapid Lion award at the 2016 Festival. However, just as his previous film, the conflicting matter of justice once again reared its head and cast a light on the stories of Stephen Mafoko, Humphrey Makhubo and Wilfred Madela.

On January 25 1980, these members of the UMkhonto weSizwe (commonly known as the MK, a radical group started by Mandela), entered the Volkskas Bank while being chased by the police who had sabotaged a mission of theirs. Knowing the multitude of police waiting outside, they decided to take everyone inside the bank hostage and, seeing no way they’d leave alive, began to stir a movement much larger than them. ‘Free Mandela’, they demanded, passing their incandescent message through an array of forms.

Asides this vague nod to that event, ‘Silverton Siege’ glistens with artistic freedom, so much so that you’d be amiss to call this a documentary or biopic of the siege’s lead characters. Director Dube flouts the conventional knowledge of three men really leading the siege, rather pulling the masterstroke of featuring a lady. Intimate details of the Apartheid era were also cut away as the camera retains picturesque quality, following the film’s immediate characters with reliant focus. In an interview, Dube mentioned Frank Pearson’s ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and Akira Kurosawa’s ‘High and Low’ as inspiration for ‘Silverton Siege’, adapting their highwire qualities and psychological tussles.

The brilliance of ‘Silverton Siege’ unfurls initially through its cinematography. Narrated by Calvin Khumalo (played by Thabo Rametsi), its early scenes depict the ramshackle nature of the nation’s slums, the stretching veldt and haphazardly-erected wooden shacks. Against the relative richness of the Pretoria landscape where he arrives to orchestrate an MK mission, audiences can sense the origins of his discontent and, even much larger, those of Black people across South Africa.

While he and his comrades are pursued through busy streets, their everyday clothes and perplexed skin marks them out, as though they’d rather be elsewhere, but are now being called into the unquestionable duty of being freedom fighters.

Inside the bank, Dube’s camera follows the trio with shifting complexity, zooming in and out with natural understanding of the emotional state he seeks to capture in a particular scene. The hostages also contribute to the montage, coming differently into the revolutionary struggle. Supplying packed tension, the sound choices are also good: in this movie, you’ll watch the most poignant interpretation of Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” etched onto a progression of events.


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Truly, life inspires art and the colour-driven history of South Africa inspired the great creations of many artists from the 20th Century to the present time. They responded variously to the inhumane-yet-strong presence of white discrimination across the country. In films like the Oscar-winning ‘Tsotsi,’ we see how Black pain can morph into Black violence, often against people in similar situations with ours.

The complex presence of being among so many and yet feeling alien lingers still in the multiplicity of languages spoken in the ‘rainbow nation’, a cultural facet ‘Silverton Siege’ does well to explore. In one scene, while negotiating with the MK trio, the white police chief (played by Arnold Vosloo) urges Calvin to speak in Afrikaans, a language with origins to the Dutch people who colonised parts of South Africa before the eighteenth century. Khumalo retorts, asking the man if he spoke Zulu. “Your people have been here 400 years and you haven’t bothered to learn an indigenous language, yet you call yourself a South African?”

In contrast to the overarching presence of racism, Dube shows that it is possible for logic to pierce through love instead of hate and greed. The character of Elani Dekker playing Christine is particularly emotive and effective. She’s an affluent white woman who learns equality early in her life, and is eager to help the Silverton trio. Prior to exiting the bank to declare their noble goals of freedom, she and Khumalo feature in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes. Confused and desperate, Khumalo initially refuses her advances to help. She doubles down, speaking a phrase in Zulu which proclaims the philosophy of Ubuntu: ‘we are only human through other human beings’. In the end, their stories are shared: his, of a past riddled with pain; hers, of a past steeped in injustice.


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Elani is just one of the several women who brilliantly execute important roles in the movie. In her act as Mbali Terra, Noxolo Dlamini juggles ferocity and tenderness, eventually becoming the most likeable member of the Silverton trio. Rachel, a lady with albinism who passes as white, is played by Michelle Mosalakae who delivers a memorable account of her skills.

The strongest criticism against ‘Silverton Siege’ is perhaps its treatment of the world outside. While Khumalo and Christine argued before sharing personal tales, the former criticised the woman’s invoking of Ubuntu. “They’re just words, Christine”, he says with pained disbelief,  in the same way a critique might point out the flattened themes of this movie, how easily it leans onto utopia to pass across its message. Well, in actuality, Nelson Mandela was released ten years later. How you hold up that information relies on your personal interpretation of justice, if its enemies run too deep in the system to have a fair chance; or optimistic enough, three people can stir millions of hearts worldwide.

Lead character Rametsi has worked previously with Dube on ‘Kalushi’, but otherwise, he’s more known for acting in TV series. Here he’s brilliant as a funnel for the conflicting emotions suffered by many revolutionaries. Sketches are made of his  compulsiveness, but he makes good on his choices eventually and by the powerful closing scene becomes the sort of hero you’d expect from a movie like this. He’s the one who has to answer the most heated of the recurring question: ‘what’s the price of freedom?.’ In its attempt to get us to ponder this question, ‘Silverton Siege’ forces us to stare at the surface of a longstanding conflict so that perhaps, one day we’ll dig deep enough to be covered in the dirt of salvation ourselves.

Featured image credits/NetflixSA

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