“Long-awaited” is hardly the phrase you’d use to describe Winnie, opening Friday in Canadian theatres. A version of South African director Darrell Roodt’s biopic of the still-contentious ex-wife of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, had its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival where it received a critical drubbing, most notably from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Controversial even before it arrived at TIFF – the result of Roodt casting Hollywood stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard as the iconic Mandelas – the film seemed destined for history’s dustbin. However, believing Winnie could be salvaged, Roodt and his South African and Canadian producers spent the next three months or so attempting just that. Roodt, 50, has since completed two more films, including Little One, which recently was named South Africa’s entry for best foreign film at the Academy Awards. He was interviewed by telephone earlier this week at his home in Johannesburg.
When the film first screened in Toronto, it seemed there were a fair number of tweaks still to be done. Did you consider it a work-in-progress at that time?
I think so. The South Africa producer [André Pieterse] was desperately trying to get it to TIFF because Toronto is such a prestigious occasion and he was using it as a gateway to the U.S. But unfortunately the film was not finished. It got a bit of negative feedback. But the good news about the negative stuff is it gave us time to reconsider the film and tweak it more. The film that’s out there now, I’m pretty happy with it. I was in Montreal last week [at the International Black Film Festival] and saw it for the first time with an audience. It was such an amazing experience, to finally see it on the big screen with an audience that, to my estimation, really appreciated it.
What difference would someone who saw the film in its unfinished form back then notice now in its theatrical release?
There’s a lot of differences in terms of the characters; it’s more complete, tougher. The two guys who reviewed it for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter would probably still not like the film, but another reviewer might love it now.… It was foolish of the South African producer to have chased Toronto; it should have been seen at its best form and we had a big fight about that. But hey, that’s in the past! As the reaction in Montreal shows, the film has a shot with popular audiences and that’s ultimately who I made it for.
So there’s no other Winnie floating around out there as a bootleg DVD or that played in South Africa?
There is no other Winnie. This is what history will judge. Personally, I think it’s ahead of its time. I think what I was trying to do with the Nelson and Winnie story was to tell a love story and have apartheid as the backdrop rather than the other way around. I’ve made those old-fashioned apartheid films but I was really hoping to do something different here and make this love story that goes terribly awry against this awful background.
You finished your recut and mix of the film about nine months ago. Has Mrs. Mandela seen it in the meantime? [In 2010, Mandela asked to read the screenplay but was turned down. Legal action was threatened.]
She still hasn’t seen the film and I’m still not sure how we’re going to get it to her. That’s all in the producer’s hands.
A few years ago I interviewed [the white South African writer] Damon Galgut and one of the things we talked about is how hard it is to stay in South Africa, and the temptation to leave. Have you ever felt that?
You feel it every day. When I was making Winnie, people would say, ‘Go home; you’re not appreciated here.’ Go home? This is my home; I’ve spent 50 years of my life here! It’s frustrating – but when you grow up in a country like South Africa, you love it, man. You want to be part of its evolution and history. I care about this place; I want to make films about South Africa and so I keep going. I could’ve taken the easy way out and made car chase films in Los Angeles.
This interview has been condensed and edited.