Film review: Unending complicity and collusion in Murder in Paris- The Assassination of Dulcie September- documentary – directed by Enver Samuels

What: Murder in Paris- The Assassination of Dulcie September -2021 documentary Director: Enver Samuels Duration: 99 minutes Language: French and English – English subtitles Viewing platform: Durban International Film Festival- July 22 to August 1, 2021 Cost: Free- booking link  

Who killed Dulcie September and why was she killed.  The ‘why’ is at the heart of Murder in Paris- The Assassination of Dulcie September. This intense and gripping investigative documentary, foregrounds the fact that no one has been held accountable for Dulcie September’s murder on 29 March 29, 1988, in her office in Paris. She was shot five times. Five times. That speaks of force and intent. It was a planned hit. Dulcie September was the ANC’s chief representative in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg and had eyes and access to a lot that was happening in the 80s – as the Apartheid regime was winding up its activities. There was a scramble to keep allegiances intact – ie profitable. Murder in Paris – is an intense and uncomfortable film to watch. It comes across as a thriller – but not in a good way. It reminds me of a John le Carré novel with spy versus spy- complicity, collusion, expediency – and for the most part a fudging of accountability as new alliances form. As is suggested in the film, Dulcie September was effectively “erased” because her story stirs up uneasy issues for individuals – personally and politically.

In the film, director, Enver Samuels follows the unrelenting pursuit by Dutch investigative journalist, Evelyn Groenink, to unearth and ferret out answers from a variety of sources. Groenink’s book Incorruptible: The Story of the Murders of Dulcie September, Anton Lubowski and Chris Hani, was self-published in March 2018. Groenink and others have postulated theories as to why Dulcie September was “taken out”- allegations of arms deals between South Africa and France. The bottom line- probably money. Watch the film to find out more about what could have gone down. That is interesting and grueling to contemplate  but for me the film conjures up a vivid sense of context and place-what it was like for Dulcie September to be in exile, away from her home city, Cape Town, mired in politics and skulduggery. It is not a romantic joyous Paris we see in Murder in Paris. Samuels conveys the loneliness that Dulcie September must have felt. For at least eight months prior to her death she had maintained that she was being followed; stalked; that her phone was being tapped. The rejoinder that came her way: “We are all being followed.” Shot on location in Paris, we get a tangible sense of what it must have been like for her to be alone in the 80s in Paris as an ANC operative as she anxiously looked over her shoulder to see who was lurking in the shadows. A particularly powerful moment is when Evelyn Groenink is filmed as she tries to work out the trajectory of the bullets and where Dulcie September was standing in her office when those five bullets slammed into her, in that room. This to me is where the power of this film is harnessed – in imaging the brutal murder and presenting it to us to gaze into and consider.  It brings Dulcie September’s murder into unflinching focus. We need that. We need to be taken back to the place and scene of the crime in a foreign city.

Coupled with the investigative and forensic approach in Murder In Paris, we hear Dulcie “speak”, through voice-overs by South African actress Denise Newman – with enactments from a biographical play Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September. Newman performed in this solo tribute play, written by Basil Appollis and Sylvia Vollenhoven, with research and input from Newman. I saw the play in 2015, at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, with Neman performing. Cold Case had premiered in 2014 at the National Arts Festival and won a Standard Bank Ovation Award 2014 and the inaugural Adelaide Tambo Award for Celebrating Human Rights in the Arts. The play foregrounded for me a deep sense of the personal- Dulcie September – yearning for her country and friends and family. The brilliant Newman brought her to life, on stage, when it was possible to have a full audience-in-attendance. Many people were shocked to find out about her story and that it remains a “cold case”. The play was subsequently performed in Arcueil, a suburb, south of Paris. Murder in Paris sharpens the politics – the geo-political gerrymandering that went on in Paris and how Dulcie September was erased.

I see the play – Cold Case and documentary – Murder in Paris -as companion pieces- the personal and political- mashed up.  It would be great to have a filmed recording of the play – and to make the play and film available, for learners at school who need to engage with Dulcie September’s story. Bravo to Enver Samuels and his colleagues for going up in that elevator in Paris, for walking in the steps of Dulcie September. I hope that the film fast-tracks justice for Dulcie September. I also hope that the stage play, Cold Case, will be revived, when theatres can fully opened. The film and play provide multiple perspectives into Dulcie September- her life; death and legacy.

Correction: Jacqueline Dérens has pointed out that Cold Case – the play – tribute to Dulcie September was not staged in Paris- as originally stated in this review. Dérens notes: “Denise Newman’s play was not performed in Paris but in Arcueil, a town in the immediate south suburb of Paris. The town welcomed Dulcie when she was the ANC’s representative and offered her accommodation. You can see the building in the film. The play was performed for Dulcie’s 30th death anniversary. Arcueil keeps Dulcie ‘s memory alive. Paris could not care less about her. Her murder is a real thorn for Paris.” Jacqueline Dérens is a writer, translator and critic. She was an anti-apartheid activist and a close friend of Dulcie September and has written extensively about her murder. Dérens’ books include Nous avons combattu l’appartheid [published June 2006]. This review has been updated to include the correction, provided by Jacqueline Dérens.

Murder in Paris