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“He just had some instinct — almost like somebody touched him on the shoulder and said, ‘This will work,’ ” says Eastwood with the awe that seems to creep into people’s voices whenever Mandela is mentioned. “How the hell he figured that, I don’t know.”
Seen from the Cape Town shore, Robben Island might be mistaken for a nature preserve (indeed, it is home to several thousand indigenous penguins, rabbits and feral cats) or a rustic tourist retreat. As you draw near, however, there is something forbidding about the former leper colony and the jagged limestone rocks that form a natural barricade around it.
The day after my initial visit to the Invictus set, the tourist ferry transporting Eastwood and the crew from the mainland is painted with brightly colored human figures raising their hands in gestures of freedom, but the two dozen extras seated nearby, costumed in Robben Island’s apartheid-era prison khakis, offer a vivid reminder of the enemies of the state who made this very journey in the hold of the ship, blacked-out portholes obscuring their view. Decommissioned now and preserved as a historical museum staffed mostly by former inmates, a small primary school offering the only evidence of the dwindling local population, Robben Island exudes the haunted air of a Civil War battlefield or a Nazi concentration camp — a monument to inhumanity. It is here, in one of the long, barrackslike buildings dotting the arid landscape, that prisoner number 46664, a.k.a. Nelson Mandela, spent two-thirds of his 27-year incarceration.
The first of the day’s scenes to be shot dramatizes an actual visit to the prison made by the Springboks in May 1995, the day after they had vanquished defending champions Australia in the first match of the World Cup. As the actors file in — most, except for Damon and Eastwood’s 23-year-old son, Scott (who is playing the fly half Joel Stransky), actual rugby players cast locally — no acting is needed to express their astonishment at what they see. The spartan cells where Mandela and his fellow prisoners were held measure about 50 square feet — barely large enough for a man of Mandela’s size (more than 6 feet tall) to extend fully his arms. Mandela’s cell, which has been kept in its original condition, contains only a small table, some metallic bowls, a bucket toilet and a folded blanket. (Beds were not introduced until 1974, a decade into his stay.)
Outside in the prison yard, Eastwood, his cinematographer Tom Stern (an Oscar nominee for his work on 2007’s Changeling) and visual effects supervisor Michael Owens stand in a semicircle discussing several approaches to filming a scene in which Pienaar sees a transparent, ghostly image of Mandela, sitting alone in his cell, reading the William Ernest Henley poem that will eventually give the movie (at this point known only as Untitled Mandela Project) its title. Meanwhile, the production designer James J. Murakami (also a Changeling Oscar nominee) is dressing the prison yard in sand and limestone for a flashback scene in which Mandela and other prisoners sit chiseling the large rocks into smaller ones — the bane of many a Robben Islander’s existence. Helping to set the scene is Derrick Grootboom, an ANC activist and former Robben Island inmate who was arrested in 1986 on charges of sabotage, after lobbing a petrol bomb through the window of a government eviction office in the town of Dysselsdorp. Sentenced to seven years, he remained on Robben Island until the last political prisoners were freed, in 1991.
“There are always good people amongst us,” the cheerful Grootboom tells me as we sit on one of the large limestone slabs, recalling one birthday he celebrated behind bars. Although he received no gifts, one of the guards sang him a song, “Jesus Is Love” by the Commodores. “He lifted me up,” Grootboom says, staring off into the distance. Now 42 and recently elected as a judge to the Cape High Court, Grootboom was working as a private prosecutor when the Springboks played their 1995 World Cup Final against New Zealand’s undefeated All Blacks and remembers watching the game on television together with his colleagues. “We weren’t White, Black, Indian and Coloured,” he says, rattling off apartheid’s four racial designations. “We were just South Africans.” Then came the iconic moment, depicted in Eastwood’s film, when Mandela stepped onto the field to greet both teams, wearing a Springbok cap and a replica of Pienaar’s No. 6 jersey. “When he went onto the field, wearing that jersey,” Grootboom recalls, “he was the epicenter of where the country was going.” At that point, it could be argued, the Springboks had won something much more valuable than a gilded trophy.
As morning gives way to afternoon, Freeman arrives on set already in costume, his resemblance to Mandela striking. It was, after all, the president himself who, when asked at a press conference whom he thought should play him in a movie, suggested Freeman. Shooting begins, with Freeman and the extras dutifully chiseling away. When Eastwood asks for a second take, Freeman feigns indignation. “Have you ever broken stones?” he asks his director. “This is the last time I work for Eastwood!”
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