What Lies Beneath: Cathy Henkel's the Man Who Stole My Mother's Face Was Awarded the Best Documentary Film at the Prestigious Robert De Niro Tribeca Film Festival, Held in May in New York

By Trbic, Boris | Metro Magazine, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

What Lies Beneath: Cathy Henkel's the Man Who Stole My Mother's Face Was Awarded the Best Documentary Film at the Prestigious Robert De Niro Tribeca Film Festival, Held in May in New York


Trbic, Boris, Metro Magazine


TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS 88, Henkel's mother was sexually assaulted and savagely beaten by a white teenager in her home in Johannesburg, South Africa. The police mishandled the investigation, the neighbour disputed the victim's statement and her son blamed her for letting the attacker into the house. The perpetrator was identified from a school photograph, however, he still remains a free man. Henkel's mother migrated to Australia, trying to recover from the assault and its consequences. The Byron Bay filmmaker travelled to post-apartheid South Africa to confront the man who assaulted her mother more than a decade ago. Henkel's riveting search for justice, placed against the backdrop of South Africa's transition, screened at the 2004 Melbourne International Film festival.

BT: How would you describe The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face? It is a personal journey, yet far more than that.

CH: It is a journey that I needed to make to heal what had happened within my family. The film started as a search for justice for my mother and the quest for justice naturally became a central part of the documentary. I hoped it would help people pay attention to what I was saying. The story has a political aspect, too, yet, it would have lost its potency if it was politicized. Politics had emerged quite organically, and, behind a personal journey, one is still able to discover a political landscape.

The faces in your film are symbols of love and suffering and represent the memories, good and bad, of the people you left behind.

All those faces are metaphors for viewing my film. However, I started the story with the trauma of my mother's disfigurement. After the rape, my mother believed she looked like a monster. She didn't. She was disfigured, but even after her wounds healed, she could not look at her face in the mirror. These days, people tell her: 'You look beautiful. Courage is coming out through your face.' But in those years, she could not see her beauty.

Acts of violence often evoke correspondences with the setting in which they occur. How does the changing face of South Africa contribute to your story?

Different faces of South Africa play an important part in my story. In 1988, when the attack happened, Hope Road, the street where my mother's house is located in Johannesburg, was a white enclave of the lower middle-class. White suburbs were segregated from the black. The fact that a white person was the attacker is a crucial part in my film and made the story profoundly different.

There is another aspect to this story. I arrived in Australia when I was eighteen and felt enormous guilt and shame being a white person from South Africa, belonging to that community, wearing a badge of the oppressor. Those emotions were still alive during my first visit. In 2002, the picture has profoundly changed. In that society, unfortunately, cottages in white enclaves became prisons. On the other hand, blacks were liberated, on the streets. I experienced a joyful, vibrant, colourful society. …

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