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Artists VII

FlyingCity (Korea)

Ham, Kyungah (Korea)

Harris, Thomas Allen (USA)

Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela - A Film by Thomas Allen Harris

A Son’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes

A Chimpanzee Productions Film

Produced, Written and Directed by Thomas Allen Harris

Produced by Rudean Leinaeng, Woo Jung Cho and Don Perry

Running Time: 73 Minutes


Toronto International Film Festival 2005


Mangaung African Festival

Cape Town World Cinema Festival


Truer Than Fiction


Pan African Film Festival



Confronted by the death of his stepfather, Director Thomas Allen Harris embarks on a journey of reconciliation with the man who raised him as a son but whom he could never call "father."  B. Pule Leinaeng ("Lee") was an ANC foot soldier, who sacrificed his life for the freedom of his country.  As part of the first wave of South African exiles, Lee and his eleven comrades left their home in Bloemfontein in 1960 to broadcast to the world the brutality of the apartheid system and to raise support for the African National Congress ("ANC") and its leaders, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. Drawing upon the memories of the surviving disciples and their families, young South African actors portray the harrowing events of the exodus and exile and in so doing, forge their own reconciliation between the generations.



I arrived in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on January 14, 2002 for the funeral of my step-father, B.  Pule Leinaeng (Lee). It was my first time to Bloemfontein, a place I had grown up hearing about.  Lee and I had a tumultuous relationship.  For me this 31 hour trip from San Diego to Bloemfontein was more of an obligation - to support my mother and say goodbye to Lee.

What I experienced was not at all what I had expected. I felt as if I had come home. Everywhere I went people greeted me as Lee's eldest son and referred to him as my father. In Lee's home town, the concept of stepfather was an alien one. I painfully realized that I had come home too late to share it with the man who raised me. I was here to say goodbye to a father.  Keeping myself behind my video camera was the only thing to hold back the unanticipated devastation of mourning.

During the six days of funeral services, testimonies, visits from friends and family, I learned more about Lee and how he had left South Africa with eleven other African National Congress colleagues to help build the ANC in exile.  They were known as the Twelve who left Bloemfontein. Listening to the story of their exodus and exile, I was struck by the courage of these young men who left their close knit families to venture out into the unknown. It was a story I had heard before - as a child I used to listen as Lee shared reminisces of home; the early years of the ANC's struggle to overturn Apartheid; how they left as a group and ended up Tanzania.  But it was different now, hearing with adult ears the familiar stories, only now more expanded, with new details and deeper insights, from the men with whom he left.

The Bronx

Growing up in the United States during the 1970's, I was aware of the media portrayal of the ANC as a communist terrorist organization. It was many years before the name "Nelson Mandela" would become the global face of resistance to a brutal regime.  Regarded as political agitators, Lee and my mother would jokingly warn me that our telephone was most likely tapped. Lee's mission to liberate South Africa seemed like an insurmountable challenge. As a child, I was torn. Each night I would pray to become invisible and fly to South Africa to fight the evil racists.  Looking at a photograph of Lee and the eleven other men he left South Africa with, I imagined them to be Nelson Mandela's Twelve Disciples.  At the same time, I could not bring myself to trust Lee.  My biological father had been emotionally and physically abusive and after he and my mother divorced, he abandoned my younger brother and me.  I promised myself never to let another man hurt me the way my father had. Throughout my adolescent years, I rebelled against Lee, finding fault with his foreign customs, his bouts of depression and his drinking.


As Lee's comrades shared with me their own personal struggles with alienation, depression and homesickness during their 30 year exile, I gained an appreciation for the strength and stamina of these men and felt tremendous remorse for rejecting Lee as my father. I wanted to reconnect with him by way of the men who were bonded to him through 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. He had come to the USA in 1967 to study journalism and become a political television journalist and thereby fulfill his mission to broadcast the message of the ANC to the world. I began my career as a television journalist producing public affairs programs on public television and from there went on to produce several personal documentary features - all of which used super-8mm film that Lee shot of our family during my childhood in the Bronx and Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. This film is a labor of love, an attempt to reach beyond the realm of death, to claim a father that I had wanted but had rejected in life.


The first interviews for the film were held immediately after my stepfather's funeral in Bloemfontein, South Africa in January 2000. Two of Lee's comrades, Moses Medupe (Dups) and Mochubela Seekoe (Wesi), spoke to me about Lee as a young man and what life was like for them in Bloemfontein under Apartheid and during the long years of exile. I knew then that I would have to return to the place of Lee's birth to find out more about him and The Twelve from Bloemfontein.

I wanted to begin the interviews with these men as soon as possible, as they were advanced in age, their health made worse by their thirty year exile, but I was completing another documentary, E Minha Cara/That's My Face.  In the summer of 2002, the Encounters Film Festival invited That's My Face to screen in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I pounced on this opportunity to officially begin the Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela project as I had recently received seed money from the National Black Programming Consortium, a CPB/PBS funding partner.

Speaking with people in Cape Town and Johannesburg, I was struck by the way they dismissed Bloemfontein - stating that 'there was nothing there except the worse part of the old regime' and that 'I would do best to leave there as soon as possible'. Bloemfontein had been the stronghold of Afrikaner culture and the Nationalist Party, which had given rise to the system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. But people hardly spoke about the fact that being located in the center of South Africa, Bloemfontein was historically very significant for other reasons. It was the breadbasket of the country, rich in agricultural wealth, and it was in that city that the African National Congress (ANC) was born in 1912. Bloemfontein was also the home of our family in South Africa.

As soon as I arrived in Bloemfontein I immediately began researching for the film, meeting with Lee's friends and comrades and their families, looking for archival photographs, touring locations - including the B. P. Leinaeng Library, named after Lee. Bloemfontein impressed me as being a place that time forgot, the symbols of its colonial past still dominating its public places, its stoic somnolence veiling a history rich in conflicts and contradictions, the uneasy gulf between the unpaved, dusty townships and the manicured domesticity of the former whites-only suburbs. I realized that very few people in Bloemfontein, outside the disciples and their immediate relatives, knew the real story of these twelve young men. Then my crew arrived from Johannesburg and we began to interview each of the disciples - filling in the gaps of the story as to how they had come to know one another, how they became politically active, and what occasioned their momentous decision to flee the country in October 1960.  While in Bloemfontein, I also met the Provincial Minister of Culture, Webster Mfebe, who was impressed enough with the project that he immediately pledged his support - saying "if the lions never learn to write we only get the story of the hunters."

I began to look at Lee's archives - photographs, magazines, posters, newspapers, writings, radio broadcasts, films and videotapes.  I had grown up with all of these things but as a filmmaker, I came to see Lee's genius in having built this incredible documentation of his personal life and his involvement with the ANC. The more I searched his archives, the more I found, including a 90 minute audiotape of an interview with Lee that was produced in 1989, which was to form the backbone of the film.  This was in stark contrast to the other disciples, many of whom had only a few photographs of themselves and their memories.  

As I began to put the pieces together, I realized that the story of Lee and his comrades was like Homer's The Odyssey, a story of exodus, exile & homecoming. It was then that I came upon the idea to get young people in Bloemfontein to dramatically recreate the exodus & exile as described to me in the interviews. Connecting the younger generation, with the older generation became a mission for me. I was interested in using the film to build connections within a community and to tell a collective story about a shared history that could inspire those who came later to build upon the legacies of their elders. I spent the next four months writing a script, which was much more of a treatment in that it sketched out various scenes of the story, based on the testimonies and the archives. I could not bring myself to write dialogue as that seemed too contrived.

We started production in September 2003. Bloemfontein had no film infrastructure so with the help of a Johannesburg-based production company, Curious Pictures, we found our key crew, which we then brought to Bloemfontein, including: director of photography, art director, soundman, production manager and assistant director. Right before the start of production, we held several filmmaking workshops in film production, with the key crew members giving crash courses in directing, writing, art direction, production management and acting for the camera. Five promising individuals from the workshops were selected to intern on the production and several became salaried members of the crew that November.  The local crew members were trained in the following areas: research, assistant camera and sound, casting, location scouting, production management, art direction, and graphic arts 

Next, we had to find our actors.  Bloemfontein has a flourishing local theater scene. We tapped into it through PACOFS - Performing Arts Center of the Free State. Together with our Casting Manager, Kingdom Montshiwa, we got actors through PACOFS as well as by putting up flyers in the townships and at the B. P. Leinaeng Library.  We had two weeks of auditions. My mother, Rudean Leinaeng, was my local South Africa producer and casting sessions were held at the Library. We cast the twelve primary actors (who portrayed the twelve disciples) as well as over 50 secondary actors and extras.

To prepare the actors for their roles, we coordinated meetings between the actors and the characters they were portraying. In the cases where the actual characters were not available or deceased, we arranged for the actors to meet with and interview family members and/or friends to describe the character and set the mood of the time and place. Most of actors, who were in their late teens and early twenties, thought the liberation struggle began in 1976, with SOWETO, so it was a real education for them to prepare for their roles.

It proved to be difficult to get white actors for some of the secondary roles, as the black and white worlds in Bloemfontein were so separate. By contacting professors at the University of Free State, we were able to set up auditions with theater majors at the local college.  This was also where we ended up getting Art Department assistants to help our incredible Art Director, Dylan Lloyd, who had only one week to set up this period piece production. Fortunately, PACOFS opened their wardrobe and prop departments (in addition to their sound stages and their lighting and grip departments) and we were able to begin production.


We started the production with a script outline and actors who had never acted in front of the camera before.  All of the scenes - dialogue and choreography - were improvised from scratch, at the ten or more locations per day, for the three weeks of shooting. It took the actors a while to get used to acting for film as opposed to theater. We constantly worked on embodying the characters, as well as working as an ensemble.  We had daily mediations, often prayed before we began, and slowly, by the end of the first week, we struck our stride and maintained it over the course of the rest of the production. The actors were very thankful that they had met and interacted with the disciples and their families - many of whom visited the set during production. The actors

felt it really gave their performances backbone. I worked really hard with my DP, Jonathan Kovel, on the lighting and look of the recreations. In the 50's & 60's there was no electricity in the townships, so all the lighting had to be very subtle. I was also really fortunate to get Kodak Vision 2 film (some of which was donated to the production by Kodak) as it allowed us literary to shoot with candle light - no small feat for brown skin actors. We shot on Super 16mm, all hand held, to give the film a real edgy feel. We shot in as many authentic locations from the story of the Twelve as possible, including Lee's neighbor's home, as well as Mistress Winki's old home in the Township.


The production was filmed in the a variety of locations in Bloemfontein, including: the city center, where the courts, provincial government buildings, museums and commercial businesses are located;  the Batho, Phahameng, and Digaten locations, all Black township areas where Africans were forced to live during Apartheid and where many still live; Ram Kraal ("Ram's Pen" in Afrikaans), a notorious former prison, where ANC activists were incarcerated and tortured; the War Museum whose collections primarily reflect the weapons, might, and military history of the Afrikaner people; the ANC House, the site where the ANC was founded;  and PACOFS' Andre Huguenet Theater, part of a large state-of-the-art complex devoted to the performing arts.  Outside Bloemfontein, but still in the Free State, we shot at: Soet Doring Nature Reserve, a large reserve with a river running through it and where we encountered several lions; Basotho Cultural Village, located up high in the breathtakingly beautiful Drakensberg Mountains and where we were warmly welcomed by the Basotho people; Trompsburg, in an old fashioned rambling farm house on a working farm; De Brug, in an old railway station; and Bainsvlei, outside a local butcher shop. Many of these locations - considered local treasures - are unknown outside of the Free State and have never been seen on the big screen.


Source: Foundation Gwangju Biennale