Soft vengeance is more than just the title of an award-winning documentary about Albie Sachs; it is also a bedrock principle of his life.
Sachs was born and raised during the apartheid era in South Africa, and he ultimately became an activist and leader of the anti-apartheid movement.
He stars in the documentary Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa, which will close the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 21 at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
The 2015 Peabody Award-winning documentary tells Sachs’ story throughout the struggles of ending the apartheid in South Africa and the rise of freedom in the country.
Early in his career, the 80-year-old Sachs used his law degree to help others who were suffering from South Africa’s harsh racial laws. He rose to become a powerful activist of the anti-apartheid movement, but that came with consequences. As opposed to retaliating against the South African government with violence, Sachs promoted peace, which he said was an alternative way of dealing with terrible things that happened during the apartheid.
“The film is called the ‘Soft Vengeance’ and in a sense, it’s a soft film about hard times,” he said. “It tries to pick up on humane dimensions of harsh things that were happening with quite a lot of humor and music and setbacks and disappointments.”
Sachs said he was born into this struggle, and “it was part of the idealism that let me do the things I did in life that were important for me.”
Although born in South Africa, he comes from a Jewish Lithuanian background on his father’s side. He wasn’t raised to be observant, although he fondly remembered Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners with his aunts, uncles and cousins, and he has always identified as a Jew.
His father was also a very active labor organizer for the anti-apartheid movement, and the fact that they were Jews was important to him, Sachs recalled.
“There was a tradition among Lithuanian immigrants of resistance to injustice. That came through very strongly. And then of course, the violence and anti-Semitism consolidated the importance and need to fight for freedom and justice. The Jewishness in my life was very much connected with the struggle for a just society rather than through religion or other particular practices.”
In 1963, Sachs was arrested for his work with the anti-apartheid movement and was locked in solitary confinement for more than five months. Imprisoned with only his own thoughts, the only book he had to read was the Old Testament.
“The passages that reached me the most were the passages from the exile, the prophets, the exquisite, beautiful, powerful words. That kind of tradition came through to me,” he added.
After being released, he was exiled from South Africa and spent several years in England and Mozambique.
Many of Sachs’ colleagues were murdered by the South African government because they were seen as a threat. In 1988, Sachs lost his right arm and the sight in one eye during a car bomb explosion. Incredibly, he was ultimately able to share his thoughts on the loss with the man who tried to assassinate him, Henri van der Westhuizen.
The two have talked about the bomb in the past, and each recalled their feelings about it in the film.
“You walk up to an individual and you straighten out your hand, and I find that he doesn’t have a hand,” van der Westhuizen regretfully said in the film. “That is when the reality dawned on me, big-time.”
But Sachs continued working toward a free South Africa, serving as a member of the Constitutional Committee and the African National Congress. Sachs was appointed as a
justice on the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 1994 by Nelson Mandela, whom he said was a big part of the culture for a whole generation.
“When we started off, he was just Nelson Mandela, but as the years passed he became Nelson Mandela,” he intoned.
Sachs and director Abby Ginzberg will be at the screening to discuss the film and answer questions from the audience.
After encountering anguish for decades, Sachs said he was thrilled to see the firsthand triumphs of the ideals he stood for on behalf of a new nation.
“It’s all part of a journey of enrichment, of solidarity, of humanity, and so the theme running through my life, for me, is one of positivity.”
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