The Other Man would be revisionist history were it not content to function as a Wikipedia page with moving images, ham-handedly explaining South African president F.W. de Klerk’s historically marginalized role in ending apartheid. In 1990, de Klerk assisted in both the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress and the release of Nelson Mandela, but director Nicolas Rossier isn’t interested in examining these events with an eye toward understanding why de Klerk’s role has been downplayed in historical accounts; rather, through interviews with de Klerk as well as numerous other political figures of the period, and a fluid but self-reflexively lethargic archival montage framework, Rossier positions his film as merely a dedicated salute to de Klerk’s efforts as leader and progressive political daredevil.
The film’s title alone exemplifies Rossier’s woefully under-examination of the racial component entailed, in that de Klerk’s political privilege as a “white guy,” as stated by one citizen, isn’t the primary foundation from which an historical account is proffered. Rossier would have been keener to name his film The White Guy and interrogate de Klerk’s unique role as white “Other,” but such theoretical precepts are beyond the film’s grasp. Rossier prefers all of the mock-tension tactics of recent documentaries like Inside Job and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, including extensive use of manipulative soundtrack choices (here, composer Sebastián Kauderer is in full-on Philip Glass imitation mode) and problematic rhetorical moves, like lingering on de Klerk in contemplation while cruising in the back of a limo.
Rossier is committed to the sense that by fact-fucking his subject matter, he’s embracing truth and knowledge, as if extensive treatment of topics like roll-over loan debt and Chase Manhattan’s role in banning investments in South African businesses does more than dutifully lay out a case for de Klerk’s retroactive importance. Yet Rossier is never clear on exactly why de Klerk’s rescuing is necessary; instead, the film is content to vilify Mandela or, at least, suggest he was ungrateful for de Klerk’s role in having him freed. That impression is doubly amplified by pull-quote clips of Mandela denigrating de Klerk as a politician, with little feeling that what’s being shown is anything more than a highly strategized ploy to assert de Klerk’s historical relevance. In turn, the film must be seen as an attack on Mandela and on a historical account that prizes his emergence as the figurehead for anti-apartheid actions. Rossier has assembled convincing evidence to assert de Klerk’s deserved place alongside Mandela only if one ignores that the material being offered has been edited, composed, and made sentimental with the rigor of a political ad campaign, where the sole purpose isn’t a polyvalent examination of a historical moment, but a perpetuation of aesthetic manipulation in the guise of objective fact.