More than five years after athlete Oscar Pistorius murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a new documentary series by acclaimed Welsh-born director Vaughan Sivell ties the Olympic and Paralympic athlete’s rise, fall, and killing of Steenkamp to South Africa’s struggle to overcome the profound damage caused by apartheid, and the enduring legacy of injustice.
Pistorius is divided into four hour-long parts, and debuts to a global audience on Amazon Prime Video on Thursday, 6 September – nearly three years after Sivell and producers Will Kane, and Sean Richard first undertook the daunting task of telling a story that had played out in real time in the international media arena. CNN. Sky. BBC. South Africa, America, everywhere. What’s more, a South African TV channel had been dedicated to the Pistorius murder case, allowing the public to follow every second of the trial and listen live to the testimony of detectives, forensic experts, ex-girlfriends, and later Pistorius himself. A legitimate question then when new documentaries, films or books about Steenkamp’s murder and Pistorius are announced: “What does it propose to tell us that we don’t already know?”
That’s what bothers this writer when she first hears of the docu-series, and it’s also what put Sivell off before he started work on the project. But, he says, he found what he thought was a good angle to bring something new to the story – or rather, the way the story is told – by way of metaphor. As such, the series positions Pistorius as a metaphor for post-apartheid South Africa.
“I had the idea, or it struck me rather, that it is particularly poignant that Oscar Pistorius the man, and South Africa, the new South Africa, were born within a very few years of each other. They were both born with incredible challenges that they overcame to become the Rainbow Nation under (President Nelson) Mandela, and Oscar Pistorius the iconic athlete.
In Sivell’s director’s statement, he writes: “The human story of Oscar Pistorius, and the human story of South Africa since apartheid ended, are, to me, so intertwined that to tell one without the other would not be the truth.”
“Both the country and the man,” Sivell says later, “really did come crashing down.” In Pistorius’ case, he killed his girlfriend in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 and was eventually convicted of murder by the South African Court of Appeal in December 2015. In the case of South Africa, the legacy of apartheid sustains racial tensions, and incredible economic and social inequality, while corruption plagues crumbling state institutions and violent crime persist.
Sivell’s metaphor approach is similar to a strategy of Pistorius’ defense team, which saw Advocate Barry Roux blaming a culture of violence for Pistorius’ extreme fear of intruders and the events that followed. [Pistorius maintained throughout the trial that he thought he had shot an intruder, and not Steenkamp.] Sivell, however, did not just bargain on a new “hot take” to engross viewers.
The film, with meticulous editing by Italian filmmaker Matteo Bini, lays out the known pieces of the puzzle while simultaneously adding color and incredible detail that speaks of a rich research reservoir and thorough due diligence. Masses of archive footage are melded with new sit-down interviews with the Pistorius family, including siblings Aimée and Carl, his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, the state prosecutor, Advocate Gerrie Nel, forensic experts such as David Klatzow, former teammates, as well as journalists who had covered the case since the start.
Of course, there are people that Sivell wanted to interview and involve in the documentary that declined to participate, including the Steenkamp family, as well as Roux. “A lot of them had had enough of talking about this, and had given interviews for things that came out and weren’t the quality they had thought it would be or was biased in some way,” he says.
“The key thing was to gain the trust of the first few people who agreed to talk to us,” he says. “Word traveled about what we were doing, why we’re doing it and the style we were doing it in.” And so more people, and eventually the Pistorius family, came to trust that Sivell would be impartial. “That got people to trust that we weren’t going to make judgments. They gradually came to support us, and we spent a lot of time with these people.”
Sivell, who says that he was inspired by the scope and scale of the award-winning documentary series, O.J.: Made in America, admits that this is not the kind of story that he’s naturally drawn to. “But,” he adds, “it’s just such a compelling story. It’s so sad. It’s such a waste of life, not just for Reeva, obviously, the tragedy for her and her family who never get to see her again, but Oscar’s life was also wiped away at that moment.”
It was sometimes difficult not to get emotional and personally affected, says Sivell. Especially because of the lengthy production process of the docu-series – editing took more than a year. “We’re proud of it, of course, but we’re glad to have finished.”