Is secrecy the key to conflict resolution? It’s an uncomfortable question that arises from the fascinating film Plot for Peace, which reveals the untold story behind the end of apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. DocGeeks’ Joëlle Pouliot met with the filmmakers and Jean-Yves Ollivier, a man who spent his life bringing politicians embroiled in messy conflicts to negotiate out of the limelight. The results were nothing less than world-changing.
When I first met the French businessman and ‘parallel diplomat’ Jean-Yves Ollivier, I asked him in which country he lived.
Smiling enigmatically, he pointed upwards and replied “In the sky”.
According to the filmmakers behind Plot for Peace, Ollivier spends so much time traveling to meet world leaders that there really is no answer more fitting to describe the man who is nicknamed ‘Monsieur Jacques’.
Producer and Co-Director Mandy Jacobson, Editor and Co-Director Carlos Agulló, Scriptwriter Stephen Smith and the film’s protagonist Jean-Yves Ollivier were at Sheffield Doc Fest to promote Plot for Peace.
DocGeeks (DG): Ms. Jacobson, how did you come across this story?
M.Jacobson: This project that we run through a private foundation in Johannesburg (the African Oral History Archive run by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation) has been collecting the video testimonies of people who have made a difference to Southern Africa’s transition to the end of Apartheid.
And out of these video archives–we have hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews—we came across [a clip of] the prisoner exchange, where we learned about this strange mysterious man called ‘Monsieur Jacques’ who was not mentioned anywhere else. (…) So it was through that experience of uncovering the one mysterious part of the end of the war in Angola that we uncovered a much bigger story.
DG: Do people realize how exciting it can be to work in the world of archives? It seems like a common perception that it would be dull, even though you’ve proved that it can result in fascinating discoveries.
S. Smith: Yes, very good point. The other side of working in archives is that you see these absolutely fascinating stories (…) and so you have the dull perception and the exhilarating discovery. We felt all very much excited when we discovered this. I had covered the story as a journalist at the time and I was not knowledgeable about what the film now reveals. And so you’re perfectly right; there are a lot of corpses in archiving, but beautiful corpses.
JY.Ollivier : I’m still alive! (Group laughs)
MJ: They’re not corpses in the true definition, because they’re living and they tell us so much about those periods of time. We were able to access footage from Russia that we never had access to during the end of Apartheid, because at the time we were in the middle of the Cold War. There are so many treasures in archives…when you start looking and thinking about how you can turn them into a living dialogue with today’s world, it’s a really exciting challenge. And look what it did for us; Jean Yves had literally not told his story for about 30 years!
DG: You chose to make this a political thriller instead of a traditional documentary film. Do you think this is the best approach to make history engaging for people?
MJ: I don’t think there is ever one approach to make history engaging, but I think that is a challenge. Certainly as storytellers coming out of Africa who want to use history to try to make it relevant today and to reach global audiences. One of the things that Jean-Yves had demanded of us, was that if he was going to now get involved with this traumatic process of filmmaking, he wanted to be sure that we were going to engage global audiences and not people like me who love history—but younger people.
It’s kind of a wisdom of filmmaking that when you’ve got a great character, you can engage audiences. In a way he was a gift– we didn’t need to create the thriller: Jean Yves’ life was a political thriller.
DG: Mr. Ollivier, what was your first reaction when the filmmakers approached you to suggest making a documentary out of your story?
JYO: To say no, because I never intended to tell my story, ever. Then they argued, “Jean-Yves, you must tell this story. It’s a lesson for the new generation; you have to give young people the possibility to believe that we can still achieve great things in our day and age, and that an individual can achieve something great.” (…) These arguments contributed to the fact that at some point, I said yes.
DG: Was this the portrayal of your life you were hoping for Mr. Ollivier?
JYO: You can’t always be happy about things like that. Am I satisfied? Yes. Am I fully happy about it? Maybe not. One of the reasons I “came out” was that although I don’t have children, I have nephews in their 30s. And when they ask their uncle “What have you achieved in your life? ”, I wanted to leave them with a message. In this movie there are sides of myself that are still hidden; they haven’t put them in the full light. I would have liked them to be more in full light.
DG: But you’re writing a book, aren’t you?
JYO: I am. So I will compensate that with my book, but they are not going to make a movie out of my book.
SS: Well from our point of view (as filmmakers), we wanted to avoid making a home video!
DG: Are there any more secrets being revealed in this book?
JYO: Of Course! A lot…
DG: You speak about trust in your film. How did you gain people’s trust throughout your career?
The trust I established first was in business. I started in the grain trade and it’s a trade based on trust. I was educated to work in a way that you don’t lie, you commit yourself and you don’t change your position once you’ve committed. At the end of the day, you have a network of people who trust you. I don’t think I have ever failed by lying or pretending to be on someone’s side just for business. I think I got a good reputation.
DG: What makes this film so fascinating is that you’re an unlikely hero. Why did it take someone like you and not a politician, a diplomat, or a secret agent to end a conflict and lead to Nelson Mandela’s release?
JYO: I myself asked that question. Why me? I happened to be there, just like Peter Sellers in the movie The Gardener! (Laughs)
DG: When we look at today’s conflicts, do you think we actually need more secrecy, or discretion, in politics?
JYO: It’s essential. Official diplomacy has one language and where you stand on a issue depends on your country. Whether you are with the president, the minister of foreign affairs, the attaché of the embassy, they have a position because it’s the position of their country. These same people, when you take them independently you can ask them “okay this is your official position, but don’t you actually think in this case we can do something better?”
So being with an individual like me, who was able to keep a secret and who tried to bring ideas together, was a way for these people to say what they really thought.
SS: I think you really touched the sensitive part of the movie, that really goes to the heart of the film. People ask for institutionalization—with embassies, special envoys, diplomatic apparatus—and then they use someone like Jean-Yves. What a contradiction!
In actuality, the more you shine light on things, the more you make it impossible to explore context; everything is transparent but becomes impossible to conduct. So this film is a debate about parallel and official diplomacy, which we don’t see as antipodal, rather as two sides of the coin. The more you push for transparency, the more you’ll actually need the “Jean-Yves’s”. It’s sometimes difficult for democrats to totally own up to that. It’s an open debate in the film, we don’t judge.
DG: Mr. Ollivier, is this concept of parallel diplomacy unusual or is this practice common in conflict mediation, in a way that the general public is not aware of?
JYO: There are things happening that the general public doesn’t know. I continue my work in the world even today.
MJ: Why we got so excited about Jean-Yves’ story and its connection to today is that he reminds us of the human qualities in conflict resolution. You mentioned the word trust, and think: “it’s such a basic, human trait, why aren’t we all thinking about that?” But it got lost. And he brings us back to those very human values and traits that are necessary to solve conflicts.
C. Agulló: We tend to we tend to perceive countries as abstract entities, but then when you analyze the behaviour of a country, you realize that countries behave as people because they are run by people.
DG: Many people in your audience may not be familiar with the details of this episode in South African history. What was the decision-making process when you had so many political events to weave together and turn into a comprehensive film?
CA: We’ve always have the problem of reconciling the broad historical picture, which is extremely complicated, through the adventure of Jean-Yves Ollivier, which is what is going to engage the broader audience into the movie. They wanted to make it look like a political thriller more than a dry historical documentary and it’s not been easy. I’m not sure whether we succeeded at every point.
DG: The film has come out at a time when Nelson Mandela is ill and being hospitalized. You didn’t have him in your film because he was no longer giving interviews, but would it have added something to your film to include Mandela’s point of view?
CA: Not for the story.
SS: It may even have been counterproductive. We would have loved to talk to Mandela, but in terms of storytelling, he is the absence in the film. The absence that makes us suffer—that made South Africa suffer—so his release (from prison) in the end is a release in the broadest sense of the word, we all are relieved when he comes out. And so to have Mandela in the movie with his own testimony would have broken the spell of the absence.
CA: We all wanted to tell the story in the same way that we didn’t use any journalist or historian as an interviewee in the movie. Everyone was involved first-hand in the story and related to Jean-Yves somehow and his plot. So we would have had a problem including Mandela because he was not involved in the plot of… liberating himself.
JYO: There are no teachers, just players. All the people in the film knew me or knew of me at that time.
DG: Mr. Ollivier, how was it to finally meet Mr. Mandela after he found out about your involvement with his release from prison?
JYO: I met him very shortly after he was released, for breakfast. (…) When I met ‘Tata’, it was more than meaningful. You enter to see an icon, and you meet a man, who treats you and everybody like a man. He is such a human being.”
DG: Is that also how you deal with politicians in your work ?
JYO: Absolutely. Maybe that’s a flaw, but I manage my public relations on a human level. I was fortunate enough to meet and be friends with a significant number of leaders and presidents. They know that I am not with them because I’m expecting anything from them. So they feel extremely free and happy to meet somebody who is not going to ask them for something.
DG: Will Nelson Mandela’s death change anything in South Africa?
Of course he belongs to the most important people who have ever been on planet Earth. He had a dream and his quest was to achieve that dream. Whether he will have achieved that dream when he goes away, I’m not so sure. As he has said: ‘There is a long walk to freedom’. He created the path, but are we at the end of the road? No, not yet.
DG: Even if the story is set around South Africa, this film shows a conflict that involved the international community. Do you think the film will appeal to an international audience?
SS: If you forget about the history, the setting, the timeline and look at Jean-Yves’ story, what remains in this film is the question of individual agency. I’m very happy that Carlos came in together with Mandy to bend the whole film into a direction that would speak to younger audiences, to show what you can still do in an environment where everything seems to be institutionalized and predictable. Original, sometimes pesky people like Jean-Yves do things their own way, and that’s still possible, there is room for maneuver. I think there is something hopeful in the film that may outlast its historical context.
DG: Ms. Jacobson, are you planning to make other films with the archive work you’re doing in South Africa?
MJ: That’s the great gift of this archive project is that we’re not only telling great stories out of it, but also to provide the raw material for others to tell stories with. History is not just made up of one big story –as so beautifully written by Steven—but it’s made up of lots of stories. That’s the real gift and challenge for the future, to keep telling them.
To find out more about Plot for Peace please check out our review or alternatively visit the film’s website.