Thursday, 20 March 2014

The player: "Plot for Peace"

Jean-Yves Ollivier is a French businessman with a story to tell: how he came to be personally involved in securing Nelson Mandela's release from prison. When we first see Ollivier in Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson's impressively detailed documentary Plot for Peace, he's playing solitaire in a shaded backroom filling up with his own cigar smoke, and professing his own skill at making order from the chaos of the world. Clearly, this is one of life's cannier, savvier players, his rotund belly and ruddied cheeks speaking to a level of personal success; he proceeds to recount the circumstances of the greatest hand he claims to have ever laid down.

Ollivier moved to South Africa in 1981, and found it to be a nation on the verge of a grave and terrible schism: as some particularly choice, occasionally vicious archive footage makes apparent, this was a country determined to do just about anything to keep its poor black citizens from disrupting the high life its white elite were enjoying elsewhere. The status quo could only hold for so long, Ollivier sensed, and any destabilisation would prove damaging indeed to the West's considerable business interests in the region - his own among them. As the violence stepped up, he hit upon the idea of mining his own gilded contacts book, with the aim of enlisting key figures from both sides to sit around the same table and thrash out a deal for peace.

There followed a torturously complex process of negotiation, which went on for several years before the ANC leader's name came up: the talk had first to pass through events in neighbouring Namibia, and hit a major stumbling block in the form of Angola, beset as that country then was by both Cuban and South African forces, with the US, almost inevitably, starting to poke its nose in over the issue of the continent's vast mineral reserves. In the midst of all this talk, it is possible as a viewer to start getting lost, although the tangled web of allegiances Ollivier's narration sets out seems to prove beyond all doubt the enduring diplomatic theory that everything everywhere is connected - while also suggesting there was more of interest going on behind the scenes than the recent Mandela biopic pushed front and centre.

Ollivier's claim is that his profile is such that it can open doors others cannot, while still allowing him to fly under the radar (in the case of one anecdote here, literally), if needs be; that all governments need guys like him to take the steps and carry the baggage state-accredited diplomats cannot. Needless to say, this leaves him a figure at least as controversial as he might be heroic. You could well come out of the film arguing that Ollivier's actions were governed more by self-interest than any more humanitarian or philanthropic impulse, although he's the first to insist the economic sanctions imposed on South Africa at the time of his arrival weren't helping anybody. Perhaps the ends do, sometimes, justify the means.

His contact book has, at the very least, helped the filmmakers to secure access to most of the key diplomatic and political figureheads of this particular moment, including Winnie Mandela and representatives from Congo and Mozambique, further complicating the notion this whole tale might merely be one ageing white man's prideful reappropriation of a defining moment in recent black African history. A reliance on talking heads to corroborate or redirect elements of the subject's narration may prove a little wearying for the layperson - though enough of Ollivier's reference points actually come to pass to leave one mulling over the idea there's more fascinating truth in here than not.

Plot for Peace is touring selected cinemas nationwide ahead of its DVD release this Monday.

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