The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face
Cathy Henkel, an elegant white woman who lived in one of Johannesburg's more affluent suburbs was raped by a young man in her own home. She decided to document the investigation and confrontation. The resulting film, The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face, won the prize for best documentary feature in the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
SEXUAL assault is the most hidden as well as the fastest growing crime in the world; statistics show that nine out of 10 women do not report such assaults to the police and many do not tell their families. The reasons for this are manifold; underlying the sordid, painful and traumatic physical attack is the stigma of fault, the unspoken suggestion or even accusation that the victim is somehow at least partly to blame. This was the case with Laura Henkel, an elegant white woman who lived in one of Johannesburg's more affluent suburbs. She was raped by a young man in her own home.
This in itself is hardly out of the ordinary; in fact it is a common occurrence. Post-apartheid South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world: black on white, born of revenge or spawned by the last vestiges of racial frustration; black on black in the poverty of the township ghettos, and a crime alarmingly exacerbated by the belief among the under-educated that having sex with a virgin is a cure for AIDS. Children a few months old are ripe targets.
With this in view, it may be tempting for some to cry: "We told you so – democracy doesn't work. The blacks have no respect for human life."
But Henkel was raped by a white schoolboy who, passing her house one afternoon after school, asked to use the bathroom. Within a half-hour of letting him in she had been raped, savagely beaten and left for dead. She reported the case but the police paid scant notice, possibly not that interested in white-on-white sexual crimes, and possibly battle-wearied by constant violence and the fact that in South Africa a woman is raped every 26 seconds. Her neighbours were less than sympathetic – "there goes the neighbourhood" – and her own son blamed her for letting the boy in. Although she identified the putative rapist from a school photograph, he was never charged; shortly afterwards the traumatised Henkel left South Africa with her daughter, Cathy, and came to live in Australia.
Four years later, increasingly concerned by her mother's trenchant depression and sense of self-loathing, Cathy Henkel decided to take her back to South Africa to confront her attacker and perhaps find some catharsis. A film-maker by profession, she also decided to document the investigation and confrontation. The resulting film, The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face, won the prize for best documentary feature in the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The film is not without its ironies, which soon become clear even to those unfamiliar with apartheid-era South Africa. Black policemen helping a white woman track down a white rapist? In the event, Cathy Henkel became frustrated by the number of cases the police were investigating, bogged down by the plethora of offences, and took things into her own hands with the assistance of a private investigator. She eventually found out where the suspect lived and worked. The denouement comes when she faces the man who raped her mother.
Some of the performances in the documentary are spellbinding and there are images that will remain etched in the minds even of those who prefer not to confront the spectre of meaningless violence. Particularly outstanding is black playwright Bongani Linda, whose girlfriend killed herself after she was gang-raped. He killed one of the suspects and while in jail wrote a play about sexual assault that he tours to male audiences in schools and prisons.
Racial interfaces and stereotypes aside, and despite the fact it is always closely connected to the endemic problems of South Africa – poverty, urban violence and gender oppression – this film is ultimately about survival and redemption. Actor Glenn Close, one of the judges at Tribeca, described The Man Who Stole My Mother's Face as one of the most compelling and riveting films she had come across in this genre.