Foyle Film Festival: Emmy nominated local film-maker to screen ‘remarkable’ documentary

Sarah Townsend.
Sarah Townsend.

Sarah Townsend, an Emmy nominated documentary maker who hails from Derry, will screen her emotive and remarkable documentary ‘Noma: Forgiving Apartheid’ tomorrow as part of the Foyle Film Festival - and the timing could not be more apt.

Speaking to the Derry Journal this week, Sarah - who grew up on the Strand Road - said that while Noma is ultimately one woman’s story of forgiveness of the past - it also resonates with the world today.

Actress Noma Dumezweni, a long time friend of Sarah’s, agreed to have Sarah make the film which would see her return to her native South Africa after 30 years.

Aged just seven, Noma and her family - all except her father - had fled South Africa after years on the run from South African police. Noma’s father was a strong anti-apartheid activist, which made her family a target. After several years seeking refuge in Africa, Noma and her mother arrived in the UK where they made a new life.

“I had worked with Noma years ago in Edinburgh and we had become friends,” Sarah said. “I was always aware of her sense of detachment from her family - and in particular her father, but I didn’t know all her story. I had always thought she was from Uganda as she had told me she came to the UK from there as a child.

“Last year I went to see Noma act in Henry IV in the West End and we got talking. She told me she wouldn’t be at the wrap party because she was going to South Africa - to perform a play she previously acted in Hampstead Heath - a play in which she took on the role of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, famous for her interviews with the imprisoned white apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock.”

Even then Sarah didn’t realise the deep personal meaning that acting such an emotive role in South Africa would have for Noma. “I hadn’t known she wasn’t from Uganda, or that she had fled South Africa, and spent time in half a dozen countries before eventually coming to the UK.”

Then Noma dropped another bombshell - that she was going to meet her father, the father who had stayed behind to continue with his political battle after Noma and her family fled to safety.

“As she spoke, I knew this was a story that had the makings of a great documentary, but she was leaving the next morning.”

Sarah jumped to action the next day, getting funding and a production team in place to be able to travel over to Noma and to join her on her emotional homecoming - and her reunion with her father.

“When you go to make a documentary, you never know really what will happen. You may get the story you want, or you may get something completely different. So we went with a fairly open mind. Noma did meet her father - but he was only with her for a day and a half and seemed reluctant to talk to us.

“But when he did, in those last minutes he said everything a daughter needs to hear from her father.”

It was exceptionally gracious of Noma to allow Sarah and her team in on such a personal life experience, Sarah concedes. “I think because we were friends, we had things in common, so I knew that she trusted me.

“When I asked her if we could make the film, she said she didn’t really want to, but knew she probably should.

“I let her know that at the very least, if nothing came of the film itself, we would recorded her meeting with her father which would probably, for her, pass in a blur - in the way big emotional moments tend to. So she would have that atleast.”

The result however is a remarkable film which deal not only with the impact of apartheid and the political history of South Africa but which is, Sarah said, “ultimately about healing, and about families learning to forgive each other”.

It also resonates with today’s refugee crisis, as Noma was a refugee who sought a safe haven in the 70s.

“You cannot generalise. Noma has become a hugely successful actress who has made a remarkable contribution to the arts in the UK.

“We cannot turn everyone back - tar everyone with the same brush.”

Sarah is looking forward to tomorrow’s screening, back on home turf, with family and friends attending.

“I have been away for a long time, and I hadn’t realised how big the Foyle Film Festival has become - or how well regarded it is on the international circuit.

“I didn’t think my film would make the cut and get selected to be screened - so I was delighted when I heard it was to be screened.”

NOMA: Forgiving Apartheid will be screened The Nerve Centre tomorrow (Thursday, November 19) at 12.30pm. There will be a Q&A with Sarah and Noma afterwards.