If there’s a single person who symbolizes the end of apartheid in most people’s minds, it would be Nelson Mandela. But the documentary “Plot for Peace” makes a bold assertion: that a mysterious Frenchman set into motion Mandela’s release and peace in South Africa. And it’s a claim the sometimes fascinating, often convoluted, movie never quite proves.
When we first see the man code-named Monsieur Jacques, his face is obscured and he’s reciting a lyrical monologue about playing the cards you’re dealt as he, in fact, plays solitaire while smoking a cigar. The Frenchman’s real name is Jean-Yves Ollivier, and the cards he was dealt are thus: He was born in Algeria, and after that country gained independence, he and his parents found themselves fleeing from the only home Ollivier knew. Years later, as a successful cereal trader who later got into oil and coal, he traveled the world and couldn’t help but notice the parallels between Algeria and South Africa. White South Africans were living in a dream world, he thought, if they believed they could continue to subjugate the majority of the country’s population. He foresaw an inevitable overthrow and expulsion.
So in the 1980s, Ollivier did what he could to speed the end of apartheid in a peaceful way. And, because of his tight connections with people in high places, that included multi-year negotiations with multiple southern African countries. He paid for frequent travel to these destinations with his own money. He’s a little ambiguous about his intentions, but he allows how a peaceful Africa was better for business.
Ultimately, he brokered a prisoner exchange among six African countries and ushered in the possibility of the Brazzaville Protocol, which led to Cuban troops exiting Angola and, in turn, the independence of Namibia.
To tell the incredibly complicated story of what happened during this time, filmmakers Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson tapped a large collection of knowledgeable people beyond Ollivier, including Winnie Mandela and former South African president Thabo Mbeki, Chester Crocker — who was a U.S. assistant secretary of state at the time — and Cuban negotiator Jorge Risquet. All speak with assurance and authority of multiple conflicts, invoking forgotten names and events that can easily get confusing.
If you’re not steeped in the recent history of southern Africa, the timeline can prove hard to follow.
As Ollivier recounts his exploits while playing cards in his well-appointed parlor, it’s clear that he accomplished some amazing feats, almost single-handedly. But that doesn’t mean he deserves so much credit for the end of apartheid. To the people on the ground who died for the cause and made great strides long before the Brazzaville Protocol, it was no game.
Unrated. At Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains nothing objectionable. In English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans and Spanish with subtitles. 84 minutes.
Filmmakers Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson will take part in a Q&A following the 7:30 p.m. show Friday.