They came, they saw, they made a documentary. The British, who once proclaimed that the sun never set on their empire, have traded ships for cameras and guns for boom mikes.
Last year, in "Watergate," the BBC retold American history for American viewers on cable's Discovery Channel. And the American critics loved it. This year, that same British documentary team takes on the final days of apartheid in South Africa, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his eventual election to president in "Mandela's Fight for Freedom," a three-hour film that begins at 10 tonight on Discovery.
With the resources, vision and patience of the BBC, producer Brian Lapping takes the last 10 turbulent years of South African history and tells the story completely. With the exception of such rare efforts as Henry Hampton's PBS series on civil rights and the Great Depression, American viewers seldom get recent history done with this kind of attention to detail and scope.
On most commercial TV, a story gets told in 48 minutes, or it doesn't get told at all. Unfortunately, not everything that happens in the world fits into the networks' neat, hour-minus-commercials programming block.
What makes "Mandela's Fight for Freedom" such a rich treat for viewers who like nonfiction television is that it seems as if all the key players are interviewed. It's a story not with just two sides, but with several -- from Mandela's African National Congress to P. W. Botha's National Party to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party to Eugene Terreblanche's Afrikaner Resistance Movement. All of the above -- as well as Winnie Mandela, F. W. de Klerk and others -- appear on camera in a fairly relaxed setting and retell the history they had a hand in making.
There is no celebrity anchorperson to rephrase what we have just been told or, for that matter, any on-camera questions. The filmmakers let the history-makers tell their stories.
Like last year's "Watergate," the version of events that one person tells may be totally contradicted by the next person on camera. Winnie Mandela, for instance, tells the story of a secret meeting at the house of a cabinet official, a story that is turned on its head moments later by the cabinet member's version of events.
The process reminds us that history is highly subjective and that just because something is being said on television by someone who seems to be an authority, it isn't necessarily the truth.
The other great joy in viewing this film is found in its editing, which ultimately provides the point of view for viewers. BBC tape editors must live in a zone of their own. Nobody puts pieces of tape together like they do. The narration by Alfre Woodard is almost unnecessary, so well do the clips capture the violence, massacres and the near-revolution South Africa faced day after day as the political process threatened to collapse under the bald duplicity of many political leaders.
The signature of the film might, in fact, be the way clips of politicians declaring one thing for public consumption in press conferences and speeches are interfaced with clips showing the same leaders saying and doing another thing through aides, ministers and secret meetings.
Discovery is on a roll of great nonfiction television with recent documentaries on D-Day, the migration of Southern black people to Northern cities and the fall of Saigon -- all from British producers. Add "Mandela's Fight for Freedom" to that list of thoughtful, quality television.
G; The film continues tomorrow and Wednesday nights at 10.