While lying in a hospital bed in London recovering from a car bombing that cost him his right arm and sight in one eye in 1988, Albie Sachs received a letter.
“Don’t worry, comrade Albie, we will avenge you,” it read.
“And I thought, ‘Avenge me?’” said Sachs, a visiting professor at Yale Law School and a former Justice on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. “‘Are you going to cut off their arm, make them blind in one eye? Is that what we’re fighting for?’”
Sachs had been targeted by the South African security services for his association with the anti-apartheid movement while he was living in exile in Mozambique. He said he felt that the kind of vengeance suggested by the letter would only serve to put the freedom fighters on the same level as their opposition.
“But if we get freedom, if we get democracy, if we get the rule of law, I’m saying to myself that will be my soft vengeance,” he said. “Roses and lilies will grow out of my arm.”
“Soft Vengeance” is the title of filmmaker Abby Ginzberg’s documentary on Sachs and on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
The documentary was screened at YLS on Tuesday afternoon. At the conclusion of the film, approximately 80 audience members gave Sachs and Ginzberg a standing ovation before a question and answer session.
Ginzberg first met Sachs as a student at University of California Hastings College of the Law in the 1970s, she said.
“Albie was literally in exile at the time,” she said. “And so Albie became a very close personal link for me and several of us to the anti-apartheid movement.”
Ginzberg said she did not think about making a film about Sachs until she met him for coffee in South Africa in 2009. As she was getting in a cab to leave, she said, she asked him what he thought about her making a documentary on his life.
Sachs said he was intrigued by the idea but was also hesitant to agree before he saw some of Ginzberg’s other films.
Ultimately, the two worked together on many aspects of the film, even though they oftentimes disagreed on how to tell the story, both said.
“At one stage she actually stepped back and said, ‘Albie, it’s your life, but it’s my film,’” Sachs said.
Ginzberg’s documentary recounts how Sachs’ involvement in the South African anti-apartheid movement began in his late teenage years. Sachs began his law career defending people charged with breaking South Africa’s racial statutes and security laws under apartheid.
As a result of his association with the freedom movement, Sachs was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Cape Town for 168 days, an experience that would later influence his strong position against torture. After his release, Sachs went into exile in England and then Mozambique, where the bombing occurred. Following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, Sachs helped write South Africa’s new constitution. Mandela appointed him to be one of the first 11 judges to the new Constitutional Court of South Africa, where he served as a justice from 1994 until 2009.
Audience members gave broadly positive reviews of the film.
Michelle Chan ’15 said that she did not know what to expect before seeing “Soft Vengeance.” Chan said that in light of the recent protests in her home city of Hong Kong, seeing the footage of the South African people lining up to vote after apartheid was very moving for her.
Assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry Roz Meyer said that one of the most powerful moments of the film was the interaction between Sachs and Henri van der Westhuizen, the former South African military intelligence officer who arranged the car bombing in Mozambique.
Ginzberg said she hopes audiences of “Soft Vengeance” will see Sachs as an example of how to live their lives. Having lived through imprisonment and violence, Sachs remains a model of acceptance and pacifism, she said.
“Soft Vengeance” will be screened in cities with small art house venues, Ginzberg said, though she is not yet sure of the precise locations. Individual DVDs of the film will soon be on sale.
This semester at YLS, Sachs is teaching “Reason and Passion in the Law” — a course that advocates for the combination of humanity and rational thought in making a good judgment.
In total, Sachs has 14 honorary degrees across four continents.