Rehad Desai on ‘How to Steal A Country’

How to Steal A Country is a documentary from acclaimed, award-winning documentarian, Rehad Desai, now available to watch on Showmax. The film unpacks #GuptaLeaks from the perspective of the media who broke the story and the State Capture saga that followed exposing the Gupta brothers and their control over the country and government under Jacob Zuma.

Spling had the chance to interview Desai, a bold and pre-eminent documentary film-maker in South Africa, who has also brought us Miners Shot Down and Everything Must Fall.

Your documentaries seem to be aiming to be the definitive account of major events and news stories in South Africa. Is this a goal and how do you think this reframes our collective view of history?

I do not set out to produce the definitive accounts of major events. It can only become that in the documentary genre with the passing of time. We determine what part of the narrative we want to speak to based on what we have to say about a particular event. If that finds wide resonance then it becomes part of the documentary canon, so to speak. In this instance, yes, it does help shape the way we remember and this is an important task with the landmark events.

Your previous documentaries used more “on-the-ground” footage, making them grittier and more immediate, what made you opt for a more elegant approach?

Corruption is often hidden from the eye. We had to tell the story as simply as possible but in the most powerful manner without losing the complexity. We did this through a wide casting process and settling on our journalists, who were able to recount powerful first person stories, as were our two politicians. The combination of simplicity and power makes it elegant.

The end credits include a long list of people and companies that declined to be interviewed, what bearing does this have on your project?

A number of accusations are made in the films and it’s ethical to give all those that are implicated the right to reply. The audience also need to understand who refused.

As an acclaimed documentarian, your name precedes you and you’ve developed a reputation for making fearless and eye-opening documentaries – do you think that this has become a disadvantage? How do you broach interviews with your subjects within this context?

Yes it does not always help that I have a reputation for what people describe as ‘taking down’ some big names. It helps with protagonists but not with antagonists.

The documentary seems to be influenced by films like All the Presidents Men, was this intentional and one of your original references?

We had a number of models. This was not one. But we certainly had the thriller genre in mind.

How to Steal A Country takes the perspective of the front line journalists who broke the story and covered State Capture extensively?. Was this the original vision for this documentary and if so, how did How to Steal A Country evolve from inception?

We started wide with a multi POV approach – lots of journos, a few whistleblowers, state functionaries, antagonists – but narrowed the focus to those at the coal face, those who were being attacked for performing their professional duty, those who could explain the complexity without making it complicated. And that pointed us to the journos.

The role of a journalist has effectively been downgraded over the last years with the rise of social media platforms, the circulation of fake news and dwindling advertising revenue with newspapers converting from print to digital. This documentary serves as a shot in the arm for those noble professionals who persevere. What are your views on the state of affairs?

The fragmentation of the media landscape due to the advent of the internet has severely undermined legacy journalism. Social media and the many to many model is not all roses when it comes to democracy. We have seen the elites utilise the various platforms for their own nefarious reasons and in doing so dress up reactionary propaganda as journalism and create tremendous confusion, as much of it is fake news.

Duduzane Zuma recently tweeted in response to a news article about How to Steal A Country’s release that the country was stolen in 1652, perpetuating his father’s narrative. Since he’s one of the figures who received some extensive interview footage, how would you respond?

Colonialism, slavery, land dispossession and the extraction of our commodities remain embedded in the imperialist design imposed upon us. The Zuma network and indeed the bulk of the ANC’s leadership seem to have adopted the old adage if you cannot beat the bastards, join them. They did so under the rubric that they were challenging the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth. We did not elect the ANC to behave like the robber barons our country is well known for. We elected them to stop the theft. They have deeply disappointed us.

You seem to be spearheading documentary film-making in South Africa, undertaking some of the most controversial and newsworthy topics. Have you got a new project lined up?

A Gift From The Dying. It looks at how the international research community is on the cusp of finding an HIV vaccine. This film is being made in the time of the coronavirus. There are many parallels between the two pandemics – and the characters we have been following are on the front line of both over the past 30 years.

The State Capture and Gupta saga opens old wounds at a time when Cyril Ramaphosa is showing true leadership. In the current circumstances, how do you think How to Steal A Country will be received?

I think the film now acts as a timely reminder of what can go wrong when you introduce big stimulus packages. The feedback we have had to date makes us feel like the all the hard work over two years was all worthwhile.