Labyrinth of Lies is more than a story of history

A few years ago I visited Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. My husband and I travelled just 32-odd kilometres to get there from Munich. I remember walking back into the small town after the English tour. Only a few hundred metres down the road we turned a corner and bright, summery shrubbery obscured the site of many deaths from view. I think this is what it was like for many Germans during WWII. An extermination camp operated, mere kilometres from where ordinary Germans lived. And residents either chose to ignore its existence or were unaware of it.


Alexander Fehling in the subtly and brilliantly acted Labyrinth of Lies. Image source:

Decades later of course the world has enough information about what went on in these camps to be appalled. Perpetrators have been prosecuted. Camps like Dachau have been made into museums so that we can’t escape history. But it wasn’t always like this. The film Labyrinth of Lies makes that clear. Set in Munich less than two decades after the war viewers of this movie are confronted with a Germany of silence. Victims hesitant to speak up. Nazis living and working as bakers, mechanics, teachers in towns alongside their victims, not revealing what they did. Officials unwilling to share what they knew. Finding the criminals was a mission, aided by laws for their prosecution that didn’t yet exist, and reams and reams of paperwork and red tape.

One young prosecutor, instilled with a sense of justice, “stumbles” across a victim, and a journalist passionate to tell the truth. And so together they begin what would lead to the first large trial in Germany of SS officers who were responsible for the deaths of thousands in Auschwitz. Alexander Fehling as the prosecutor Johann Radmann is outstanding in his role. Subtleties of facial expression and body language reveal more than words as the actor moves his character from ignorance, through duty then horror, to passion, despair and determination.

Labyrinth of Lies is more than a film about history. It reveals the human heart and poses the question that, had we been in the position of those Nazi officers would we have behaved any differently?

Labyrinth of Lies is in German with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau in South Africa on Friday 30 September 2016.

The Magnificent Seven is Fun to Watch

Take heart. Life today is a picnic compared with that of the 1850s Wild West. Conditions then were much harder than they are in any modern, crime-ridden country today. The Wild West was a dusty, lawless place where people were killed daily by guns. “Protected” by ineffectual sheriffs, townspeople in those parts were forced to take the law into their own hands to protect themselves. Only after many bodies and an impressive supply of ammunition did the goodies stagger to a triumph.

The Magnificent Seven (a 2016 remake of the 1960 original of the same name) follows this typical Western formula. Right down to the stirring background music, saloon scenes and main-street duels, this modern movie delivers plenty reminders of Westerns of long ago. The triumph of good over evil, high jinks, humour, and avenging the death of loved ones makes the viewer forgive the film’s violence and unbelievability.

The Magnificent 7. Photo supplied by: Ster Kinekor

The Magnificent 7. Photo supplied by: Ster Kinekor

Chisolm (Denzel Washington), the main goody avenger, is hired by widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) – the only woman in Rose Creek with balls – to chase out the bandits who have taken over their mining rich town. Chisolm, with great street smarts, gathers himself six other men, promising them payment to help him in the defence of Rose Creek. The bunch is an unlikely “magnificent”. Billy Rocks (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a bear-like man with a high-pitched voice and a penchant for praying over his victims. The rest are made up of a red Indian, a Mexican, a gambler, an Eastern knife fighter (who kills victims with anything sharp, including a hair pin) and a war veteran struggling with PTSD. But they’re all fantastic with weapons.

Denzel Washington is characteristically stylish, and the action, which includes dynamite explosions and great horsemanship is exciting and fun to watch. There is no swearing or sex in The Magnificent Seven. Just lots of good-old sharp shooting. Lovely family viewing (if you’re over 16).

The Magnificent Seven opens at Ster Kinekor theatres countrywide in South Africa on 23 September 2016.


The Snow Goose Shows Human Nature

I attended the 2016 Hilton Arts Festival in the KZN midlands on a very rainy and cold Sunday, the 18th of September. I felt sorry for the brave stall holders sitting under their flimsy shelters in the miserable weather. Conditions definitely detracted from our enjoyment of the day and no doubt from the crafters’ takings. Indoor art galleries and a bustling food tent with free live music were the more cheery choices for how to spend free time.

While I wasn’t shivering in a tent, I watched three foreign-based plays: The Snow Goose, Tarty Flowers and Blonde Poison. It was a pity I couldn’t enjoy something snow-goose-free-to-usemusical; I had misunderstood the booking system by not reserving tickets even for “free” shows so missed out on Two Guitars, featuring James Grace and Jonathan Crossley. I’ll remember for next time.

The best show of the day was the beautifully scripted, extremely well-acted The Snow Goose. The story is set in England during World War II. It makes a sensitive comment on society’s cruel, and often stupid, vilification of those who are different, and on the stranger who longs to be accepted and useful. Whilst the actors in Tarty Flowers coped well with an unplanned electricity failure during their performance, the story, which seemed to move backwards, lacked a certain crispness of delivery. This meant that some of the cleverness of the show’s inspiration, Fawlty Towers, was lost. Fiona Ramsay gave a 60-minute solo performance in the aptly named Blonde Poison. This play featured a German Jewish woman relating to a journalist the story of how she had ratted on her fellow Jews in Nazi Germany, escaping arrest herself through bribery and her Aryan looks. The play was surprising on so many levels for me: from the energy required for such a lengthy solo performance, to the tale of treachery amongst Jews themselves, to realising what the name “Blonde Poison” really referred to. Ramsay was visibly moved at the end of this demanding performance and deserved her standing ovation.

Memory Highlights Prejudice

The Book of Memory, published in 2015, was added to my reading pile through a book club I have newly joined. Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah, writes in short, simple, unsentimental prose throughout this, her second book. This style coupled with a harsh story line makes for a punchy, compelling read.

Briefly, the narrative revolves around a woman called Memory who is in prison awaiting execution for the murder of her adoptive father, Lloyd. At the instigation of a the-book-of-memoryvisiting American journalist, Memory recalls her past from early childhood to the present, all the while regaling readers with accounts of the interesting characters that people the women’s prison in Chikurubi alongside her. Memory’s memory of her childhood is distant and inaccurate, as memories are, but becomes clearer as the story moves to the present. Some of the ladies in my book club saw the emergent revelations at the end too rushed. But perhaps this trait was more a deliberate merging of past and present, than of an author growing tired.

The most important aspect of The Book of Memory for me was how it highlighted the prejudices rife in (in this case, Zimbabwean) society. Memory herself is a Black woman born with albinism. From birth her melanin-deficient condition incurs suspicion and rejection. Lloyd, the man who, as Memory recalls, “bought” her, is a gay White man who, likewise, suffers at the hand of society. Just about everyone and everything in the book is subject to Gappah’s scrutiny – from the stupidity of the uneducated guards, to the colonial and post-colonial politics, religion (including Christianity, ancestor worship and fatalism), the flawed justice system, Memory’s own selfishness, and gender inequalities. Whilst Gappah (or Memory’s) most disparaging remarks are reserved for the prison guards, her tone is non-judgmental, leaving it up to the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.

It is interesting to note that Memory is able to see things the way she does thanks to the “Western” education serendipitously bestowed upon her. I found this aspect of the book a little disingenuous. Despite this, The Book of Memory raises some important issues, is very well written, and made for some stimulating discussion at the book club meeting.

Petina Gappah has also written An Elegy for Easterly and Rotten Row.

Brave Lotus Flower Rides the Dragon: A Memoir

Lives can be changed in an instant. For Tracy Todd, that moment came in April 1998. She had walked out of her home with her husband, holding their baby on her hip and dragging a suitcase packed with beach clothes. Seven weeks later, she was pushed through their front door in a wheelchair, unable to move anything except her head.
Everything had changed.

In her memoir Tracy reconstructs the horrifying moments of the accident, and her memory of the split second when she realised that her neck had broken and that from this moment on, everything would be different. We follow her through the first awful days and weeks of her rehabilitation, when she began to learn that everything she’d taken for granted before was now beyond her reach: she couldn’t, at least initially, breathe without assistance, talk, or eat, or evacuate her bowels. When, at her own insistence, she was put in a wheelchair, she fainted repeatedly. She hoped to die.

Press Release - Tracy Todd's Memoir Brave Lotus Flower Rides the DragonBut eventually she went home. Ramps were built. Showers were adapted. Her one-year-old son learned that his mother was different. And her husband at first rejected and then abandoned her.

Against all odds Tracy chose to live, and to do so independently. Divorced, and living on her own with helpers, Tracy learned to turn what had appeared to be a life of humiliation and victim-hood into one in which she took charge of her choices and learned what options were available.

Tracy lives in Mbombela and has become an accomplished and much-sought-after public speaker, inspiring many with her story. She has played a significant and critical role in raising her son. And most significantly, she has found love and emotional fulfilment.

Her story, written using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, is engrossing, emotionally engaging, humorous and sometimes frustrating, but it never fails to inspire.

Brave Lotus Flower Rides the Dragon is an honest and intimate memoir that looks into the life of a South African quadriplegic. Many people have never met a quadriplegic and have no idea how to respond when they do. Tracy’s candid details of how she has coped, physically and emotionally, with various day-to-day activities like eating, reading, writing, communicating, bathing and going to the toilet, as well as her romantic and sexual experiences, lays it all bare.

She is a woman who will touch your heart.

In order to publish the book Tracy Todd, and Tracey McDonald of I Love Books, have initiated a crowdfunding campaign through Thundafund. To support this initiative go to


Red Cafe Wonderland

As my daughter and I ascend the staircase to Red Cafe I feel like I have stepped with Alice into Wonderland.

“The owner suffers, like, really badly from insomnia,” says fourth-year student daughter. Of course then, as we pass the lady at the front desk, I can’t help noticing the simply  enormous bags under her eyes.

“Just a thought,” I say to daughter, “don’t you think running a coffee shop might worsen her insomnia…?” Is it me or does the very same proprietor seem to work at double speed ringing up the till for waiting patrons, flashing away at the keys with a sort of caffeine-fueled energy?

Daughter and I step out onto the deck which is nestled quietly next to the leaves of a tree. The height and shrubbery shield us from the ordinary Grahamstown life below, adding to the fairy tale feel. While waiting for our red cappuccino and avocado shake , I glance across at a couple seated nearby. They breathe not a word to each other for the entire time we are there. And the young man is calmly painting his forearms. After surreptitiously investigating we discover that said young man is painting makeup foundation over tattoos on his inner arms. How curious. Perhaps he’s going to a job interview we wonder?

Even closer to our table is another man. Unlike the painter, this man is accompanied only by a vast bowl of cutlery. To say he isn’t talking to the cutlery would just be silly. But he does seem infinitely more fond of his silvery companion than the painter is of his friend. Even curiouser.

Action speeds up. Our waiter trips across to our table, sloshing my drink into its saucer.

“Oops,” he says cheerfully, “my nickname is Wobbles.” At the same time a tall, slender woman in a denim skirt walks past aiming for the table in the corner. As she sits down the raucous-harmonious sounds of a live singing group fill the air from below. I look up just in time to see the woman’s bearded profile come into view.

Is Red Cafe always like this? Or only at National Arts Festival time of year? I can’t tell. It has an atmosphere all of its own. One of a kind. I’d like to say I highly recommend Red Cafe. That you should go because you’ll have a unique experience. Problem is, I’m not quite sure if I’m dreaming or not…

Shepherding satiated student daughter downstairs after paying our bill to the night owl I say, “Come Alice, it’s time to go.”


From Whiskey to Water: Interview with Sam Cowen

From Whiskey to Water is an autobiography by South African radio personality and author, Sam Cowen. The book forthrightly describes the author’s addiction journey from alcoholism to overeating to over-exercise. And it shows Sam’s gradual passage from uncertainty to self-acceptance.


Sam Cowen. Image courtesy of Jacana Media.

FROM WHISKEY TO WATER COVFrom Whiskey to Water is jargon free and easy and compelling to read. Particularly captivating are the writer’s unique similes and illustrations. “I was lying bruised and broken on the rocks at the bottom of a wine well of my own creation”, “I flopped out the washing machine like an ageing dishcloth” and “Lisa Raleigh burst into my life like a spandex-clad firecracker” are just some of the wonderful descriptions I loved reading. When I asked Sam about her fine imagery she replied that she hadn’t followed a process of carefully crafting words; “I just think in these all the time,” she said. This was evident when I queried her cold (and I mean cold – 13 degree Celcius) Cape ocean swims described in the book. “Why can’t you swim in the warm Indian Ocean instead?” I asked. “Well,” she replied, “The Indian Ocean is like the slutty cousin to the pristinely beautiful Cape Sea.” She would rather, she said, swim in an ocean that was just “busy being beautiful”.

The swimming section of the book was written in tandem with the rest, while one of the stories from the “eating” part was written first, despite it occurring only later in life. Describing her writing practice Sam said: “I don’t write chronologically.” Some events were written about in isolation, others as letters to herself, some in parallel to others. Written incidents then provoked questions that led to her writing about earlier experiences. And so the process continued until the book was finished. But it was a fast process: 3000 words a day (in a café, away from the distractions of home) and five-and-a-half weeks was what it took to complete this 200-page book. “I don’t let myself do any less [than 3000 words daily] until I end up with 78000 words and then I pare down.” An intriguing method Sam employed was to e-mail written sections to herself as she went along. This technique helped to create some distance so that she would be aware, from a reader’s perspective, how the book was to come across.

The result is a non-preachy, humorous, honest, empathetic account that will ring true for the ordinary reader trying to navigate the difficulties of self and life.