Movie Review: How to Steal A Country

How to Steal A Country is the latest documentary from prolific film-maker, Rehad Desai. The acclaimed Emmy-winning director has made definitive documentaries on Marikana with Miners Shot Down and the #feesmustfall movement in Everything Must Fall. A bold documentarian who has dedicated his craft to pursuing the truth and encapsulating moments in history as living documents, he’s turned his attention to State Capture and the Gupta family during the Zuma administration with How to Steal A Country.

Co-directed with Mark J. Kaplan who is best known for The Village Under The Forest, Desai is unflinching in his investigative films turning any and every stone over to shed light on some of South Africa’s darkest days. Now with Cyril Ramaphosa showing his true mettle and unwavering leadership in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that the beleaguered country is starting to see some hope. In the wake of Zuma’s destructive path, Mandela’s confidence in Ramaphosa’s potential as a successor is starting to come to fruition. A precarious balacing act trying to preserve his party, reactivate the economy and survive the catastrophic fall out caused by the Coronavirus his swift action and decisive calls are showing him to be the right man for the job.

A prelude to where South Africa finds itself today, How to Steal A Country is a comprehensive overview of Guptagate and the flurry following #GuptaLeaks. Starting as shoe salesmen, three brothers from India managed to become multi-millionaires through lucrative state contracts. Buying mines, launching media agencies and hiring unscrupulous PR firms to deflect attention… How to Steal A Country grapples with the unthinkable as state capture becomes a reality for three businessmen under the nose of an unconscionable President and his cronies. As editor Ferial Haffajee puts it, “They came here as traders. They sold shoes out of the boot of their car… And they left here as multi-billionaires.”

Taking on a similar tone to All the President’s Men, Desai leverages the story from the perspective of political journalists. Having been supplied with about 300,000 damning emails and documents on a hard drive, their reporting broke the damn wall on the State Capture scandal. While journalism as we know it has been under threat from flagging advertising sales, exploitative industry standards and the age of misinformation, How to Steal A Country underlines the importance of the profession, its integrity and freedom of press.

“Listen very carefully…”

The closing credits has a wall of names and companies who declined to be interviewed for How to Steal A Country. Desai’s reputation precedes him and while threatened by the prospect of being exposed, their silence only echoes the findings and sentiment of the investigative documentary. While this is his most polished film, it does seem somewhat unfinished without more testimony from the actual figureheads. Instead he incorporates material from other exclusive interviews, referencing journalistic exposes, splicing news footage of raids, the Zondo commission and punctuating the documentary with interviews with esteemed journalists.

The soundtrack is compelling, taking cues from news room and espionage thrillers to create a sleek style of reporting and storytelling. Reinforced by good pacing, the 90 minute documentary rarely hits a lull, anchored by one audacious and greedy exploitation of power after another. How to Steal A Country has a more elegant feel to the authentic and grittier documentaries, Miners Shot Down and Everything Must Fall. The Guptagate saga was expansive and Desai manages to capture the critical turning points and essence of the matter without diving into too much detail. The film has more content to work with, using less on-the-ground shooting but trying to edit it down into a representative whole without sacrificing nuance.

It’s a massive undertaking, presenting the core without simply coming across as a timeline regurgitation. The news story is powerful and shocking, probably even more so to outsiders who didn’t live through the slow-boiling circus, but How to Steal A Country‘s driving story is actually about journalism and whistle-blowers. Interviewing fearless representatives for the journalistic community in Ferial Haffajee, Susan Comrie, Thanduxolo Jika and Richard Poplak, they enliven the documentary through their commitment, passion and professionalism.

Starting with the overflow of #GuptaLeaks, the documentary serves as testament to their pursuit to hold those in power accountable and the sacrifices of heroic whistle-blowers. An incredible image develops of the integrity of the lone journalist using independent newspapers as a shield to protect their sources and expose the elite megalomaniacs, their lies and their corrupt corporations.

As with all of Desai’s documentaries, How to Steal A Country is essential viewing for all South Africans. Getting a handle on a long-running saga, filling in some of the gaps and condensing Guptagate into an elegant investigative documentary, How to Steal A Country is a must-see that plays out like a detective story. It may not be in-your-face enough, covers material most South Africans would sooner forget and doesn’t have the raw urgency of Desai’s previous documentaries, but it’s still a first-class documentary feature, a time capsule and valuable resource.

The bottom line: Compelling