During the opening scene of Miners Shot Down, there are so many guns shooting at once that it's impossible to count the bullets. In the seconds and minutes that followed, South African Police hit 112 miners, killing 34 of them.
That was August 16, 2012. The film jumps back to six days earlier, when thousands of workers intensified strike actions at Lonmin Plc’s Marikana platinum mine in South Africa. From there it's a slow build back to the moment when police start shooting. Tension becomes palpable as the days count down.
The massacre caught the attention of the international press, but filmmaker Rehad Desai was there first, in a unique position to capture what happened at Marikana.
"I started covering the strike thinking it could be a small part of the film," he tells the Straight on the phone from Johannesburg. "I had already started developing relationships with the mine workers and the community and then that terrible event happened."
The result is an intimate level of access, where Desai was collecting and reviewing videos recorded by police, security, and other sources even before some of that footage found its way to an official Commission of Inquiry.
Included is evidence that implicates individuals ranked among the most powerful in South Africa.
There are emails, for example, in which ministers describe the miners' strike as a "criminal act" that should be met with police action. There is also a transcript of a conversation between South Africa's police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, and a Lonam executive wherein the two agree that the strike must end before it spreads to other mines.
Towards the end of the documentary, Phiyega exonerates police officers at a meeting held just four days after the massacre.
"Let us take note of the fact that whatever happed represents the best of responsible policing," she says. "You did what you did because you were being responsible. You were making sure that you continue to live your oath of ensuring that South Africans are safe."
Two years later, the commission has found no reason to hold responsible any government official, police officer, or security guard involved in the massacre. Yet Desai says he remains hopeful that justice will prevail.
"The truth has a way of coming to light, one way or another, even if it takes many, many years," he says. "I think that there will be a number of people who will not be able to live with their conscience and who, over time, will come forth."
In the meantime, Desai notes that Miners Shot Down has reignited conversations on race and privilege in South Africa.
"Black workers are exploited," strike leader Mzoxolo Magidiwana says in the film. "We work like slaves."
Desai notes that nobody has ever seen a white South African among the ranks of unskilled miners who went on strike at Marakana. And the songs they sing as the march on their employers are from the era of apartheid, he adds.
"I think it has laid bare the very real lack of progress in meaningful economic transformation," Desai says. "I think this is a sort-of mainstream awakening to this reality and to the high-levels of instability that this creates, not only in our labour market but across South African society."
"The racial structure of South African capitalism has remained largely unchanged,” Desai concludes.
Miners Shot Down screens in association with the Vancouver South Africa Film Festival at SFU Woodward’s at 7:30 p.m. on November 5. The film will be followed by a Skype Q&A with director Rehad Desai. All VSAFF proceeds support Education Without Borders.