Vaughan Sivell says he isn’t afraid of how people will perceive his film, Pistorius, that released on Amazon Prime last week. “My conscience is clear,” says the 42-year-old British filmmaker over the phone, “We’ve left no stone unturned in telling this story as honestly as we could; it is a mosaic of evidential narrative.” Pistorius is a four-part documentary about the South African Paralympic and Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, 2013. Made over three years, featuring key players in a live trial, the film explores the tragedy of Reeva Steenkamp’s death alongside, and in the context of, South Africa’s society. Excerpts from a conversation:
Why Oscar Pistorius?
He’s one of the most iconic figures of our time. Like South Africa, his country, he was born with huge challenges and he overcame them. He changed the way we view people with disabilities. And then his legendary story collapsed so dramatically and tragically.
A film about a star athlete who shot his girlfriend through a glass door must have been a tightrope walk between fact and perception. How did you go about it?
As a team, we set out to be completely impartial because we didn’t have any clear idea of who he was, and whether his version of the events were true or not. So we weren’t one voice or one opinion; we debated and argued for three years and even now. Did he fire the gun? He did. Was he treated differently in comparison to others who have committed similar crimes? Yes. So, what the film is asking is this: ‘what is justice?’ and ‘what is natural justice?’ How those questions played out in the South African court of law is what we’ve tried to show.
Do you think race had a part to play in Pistorius’s case?
He is perceived to be a rich, white man, in a country with that particular history. When he said that he’d imagined a burglar on the other side of the door, everybody had thought that the burglar was black. That says something to you about race relations in South Africa, but it is also important to remember that the majority of victims of crimes in the country are also black. In that way, it becomes non-racial, and is about poverty and power.
Did you interview him or his family? Did you reach out to Steenkamp’s family?
We were unable to film him in jail but my co-writer and producer, Sean Richard, visited him in jail and got very close to his family. They supported the film as much as they wanted their version of events to be heard, and we did that completely impartially. We offered the same to Reeva’s family and they declined.