The New York-born filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris first set eyes on the central South African city Bloemfontein in 2000 at the funeral of his stepfather, a long-exiled veteran of the struggle against apartheid. The two men had not been especially close. But when mourners warmly embraced Harris as the son and spiritual heir of Benjamin Pule Leinaeng, known as Lee, Harris began re- examining their connection as well as the many meanings of exile.
His new film, "Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A Son's Tribute to Unsung Heroes," is the result of his look at that connection and the life of Leinaeng and 11 comrades who left South Africa in 1960 after the banning of the African National Congress and spent the next three decades agitating from abroad for an end to white minority rule.
"The film really saved my life," said Harris, who wrote, produced and directed "Disciples." He used actors from Bloemfontein, who improvised their lines on the basis of a script outline that relied on Leinaeng's archives and interviews with seven surviving "disciples." (Three have since died.)
"All of my work is about identity," said Harris, an African-American who is gay and dislikes giving his age. "This film works on many levels: the meaning of diaspora, the reconciliation between me and Lee, the reconciliation between people and their country."
"Disciples," which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, was nominated for a 2006 Independent Spirit Award. The 73-minute film was also named best documentary at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles this year.
Mingling documentary and re-enactment, "Disciples" tells both the story of the 12 young men who had met in high school in Bloemfontein, joined an ANC youth cell and then dispersed to points all over the world, and the story of Harris; his mother, Rudean Leinaeng; and his younger brother, Lyle Ashton.
This family of black intellectuals in the Bronx was enamored of the pan-African movement and lived in Tanzania for a while, but in the film Harris also recalls being both wary of and enchanted by Leinaeng, an exotic foreigner who slaughtered sheep in the family's backyard.
Leinaeng, a journalist, married Harris's divorced mother, a chemistry professor, in 1976.
"At the funeral it was like looking in the mirror, and everything shattered," Harris said in an interview. "I realized I had followed Lee: I had become a political journalist, I had become a filmmaker, I have a revolutionary attitude toward my work."
Early in "Disciples" is a grainy scene of a 1999 Father's Day celebration at the family's home. It was the last time Harris saw Leinaeng, who died the next year at 63. Harris says in his narration for the film, "He had raised me since I was 9 years old, but I had never called him Father."
Harris is perhaps best known for the award-winning 2001 documentary "I Minha Cara/That's My Face," which, along with "Disciples" and "Vintage: Families of Value" (1995), forms a trilogy about his family and identity, whether sexual, racial or national. After graduating from Harvard in 1984 with a biology degree, Harris turned to film as a way to express himself.
The title of his latest film is derived from his boyhood imaginings of his stepfather's life. "I used to look at the photographs of them, and there were 12 of them," Harris recalled. "I came from a religious background - AME - and I thought they must be the 12 disciples of Nelson Mandela." (He was referring to the African Methodist Episcopal church.)
Although their names are largely lost to history, the "disciples" were among the foot soldiers of the African National Congress in exile, igniting sanctions and boycotts against South Africa. The film documents not just how the men worked to dismantle apartheid but also the loneliness of exile and, for those who came to the United States, the shock of the U.S. brand of racism.
"Thirty years is a hell of a time, it's a hell of a time," Leinaeng says near the end of "Disciples."
While in exile, Leinaeng earned a journalism degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, set up an ANC office in New York City in 1972, became a staff member at the United Nations' anti-apartheid unit and in the late 1980s served as acting chairman of the ANC regional political committee. He also produced an anti-apartheid radio program that was broadcast in South Africa. He returned to his homeland in 1995, after the end of apartheid.
Beyond Harris's personal motives in turning his camera on his family's role in a worldwide struggle, "Disciples" fleshes out a story that, like the U.S. civil rights movement, is often dominated by outsize leaders. While Mandela is well known, Harris said he had to start cobbling together the Bloemfontein story without benefit of books, articles or films.
His efforts have made him a hero to some in Bloemfontein. "There has never been a film tracing the people who left South Africa," Bethuel Setai, a 67- year-old "disciple" who is a former director general of the Free State Province, said in an interview from Bloemfontein. "So many people believe the struggle began in 1976 with Soweto. This shows this whole struggle has been a relay race."
Mochubela Seekoe, a 67-year-old "disciple" who became South Africa's ambassador to Russia, was, like Setai, delighted by the film.
"Our children will know what happened and who these people are," he said in a telephone interview from Bloemfontein. "I was touched and I was happy."
Isabella Winkie Direko, 76, who had been the disciples' teacher and later became premier of the Free State Province, which includes Bloemfontein, said the film had already had "a terrific impact on the city.
"The younger ones are impressed by the amount of work they did as exiles," she said. "The older people have gone down memory lane about what they endured."
As for Harris, the film project made him more aware of the history in his midst.
"I tell young people, 'Turn off the TV and interview the oldest person in your family,'" he said. "We have all the stories we need."