Jean-Yves Ollivier Interview

At Sheffield Doc/Fest we often come across interesting people, but rarely do we find ourselves standing in front of a man who’s had a life like that of Jean-Yves Ollivier. In town to talk about his movie Plot for Peace, Mr. Ollivier played a very important role in the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid, as well as lots of other political affairs. We caught up with the “parallel diplomat” to find out more. Click here for the French version.

First of all, we’d like to ask if you liked the film?

Listen, do I have a choice? Yes, of course, I’m happy with it. Of course, you’re always going to be slightly conscious of your image… there will be one film in my life and there won’t be another, so I would’ve liked it, perhaps, if the film highlighted my character a little more. I think I’m a little too serious in this film. And then I think we said too much. It gives the impression that I’m… I hope I’m more modest in my life than I may appear in the film.

Was it your idea to put yourself in front of the camera?

No, it was never my idea. Actually, I intended to die with my secrets! But now I have nephews who are growing up who say, “uncle, who are you? What have you done?” Friends who worked with me during this time also told me that I have to tell my story because… they’re old too. We probably wouldn’t have been able to do this 15 years ago, but one thing is certain, I wouldn’t have been able to do it in 15 years time. I think it was the right time, and so I made the decision to do it.

How does it feel to see yourself in a documentary film? Is it quite a weird situation to be in?

No, it’s a big deal, and I remember thinking, “It’s not possible. Look how much weight I’ve gained!” There’s also a picture of me when I was younger so… no, I’m exaggerating a little. I must go on a diet [laughs]. It’s odd to see yourself on camera because, as always, whether it’s in front of a camera or a plain glass mirror you always say to yourself, “Is that really me standing there?” It’s difficult to get used to and embrace your own image without being narcissistic.

Normally you work behind the scenes so was it difficult talking on camera?

Am I having trouble talking to you? [Laughs] No, I think that, like all things in life, when one is committed to something, you shouldn’t do it half-heartedly. You should accept it. I’ve been very quiet for 30 years about this case, and much more on other cases… from the moment I decide to participate, I had to play the game. I couldn’t be half in and half out. My choice was… OK, let’s do this, and we did. I’m here in front of you.

What was your motivation for making the film, because you’ve done a lot of things in your life: you’ve worked with Jacques Chirac, Mandela… you grew up in Algeria…

For the film the decision was clear. One of the arguments, maybe a selling point for the production, was saying to me, “Jean-Yves, this film must go beyond mere history and geographical location.” It’s a story… it can be an example for the youth that we can still do things, that one single man can still do things; we mustn’t simply be in a system and stay in a system and accept that this system will dictate what you do; It’s sometimes necessary to break away from the system… I think the company that financed the film was driven by this and had the desire to go beyond the geographical and temporal limitations of the film. So, it was very important for me too. Like I said, if it can help other people… it’s not about me… from the moment we do things that can inspire others, we must do them. That’s it.

On a personal level, if we were to ask, “who are you?” – because we talk about the “parallel diplomat”, we talk about “Monsieur Jacques” – but if you are asked directly, “Mr. Ollivier, who are you?”, what is your response?

Well, listen, my name is Jean-Yves, I’ll be 70 years old, soon, and I am French, and I’ve had a lot of fun, and I loved what I’ve done. And I love what I do, because it doesn’t stop there! No, I hope I’m still a human being. You know, the first time I had the honour of meeting Mandela – his wife had told him about the role I played, so he wanted to meet me before honouring me – he invited me to a breakfast in Johannesburg. He had not yet become president at that point and had just been released from prison. I knew I was going to meet an icon and I was prepared to feel the emotion that perhaps believers feel in a church standing in front of the Virgin Mary, or in front of Buddha in a big temple… but what struck me when I met him was really his humanity, meaning he was the one who adjusted for me and came down to my level and not the other way around. I wasn’t looking at him like this [looks to the sky], he came down to my level. He was a man – he is a man, because he’s still alive. He is a man with great compassion; he behaves with the servant in the exact same way he behaves with the head of state. I think it’s one of the things that impressed me the most, because it’s the essence of modesty.

You said something in the movie that struck me a bit, it was about the apartheid… you said, “you have two sides fighting, but no one can win.” Is there always a need for an “outsider” to come and intervene and take charge of the things that are wrong in the world?

Listen, in the case you’re talking about, South Africa, it was clear that the loss of one side would cause the loss of the other, meaning that they were kind of joined together. Meaning, “If I fall, you fall” and no one would win over the other. They were either going to both loose, both groups, or they were going to win together. And me, my goal was for them to win together. I think I say in the film, I did not want the death of Apartheid to be the death of the white community, certainly not.

How did you meet Winnie Mandela?

Winnie Mandela… listen, I worked on this case, I did not intentionally want to make contact with the outside because I felt that the leaders outside were separated from their own land, and therefore could not understand that it was possible to consider an alternative to the preferred solution of struggle, sanctions, and all the pressure, so it was necessary for someone from the inside to understand me. From within, Winnie Mandela was the essence of resistance – without, of course, wanting to overshadow Mandela or Madiba. Do not forget that Mandela was released in the 80s… his name only started to become known in the 80s after the famous concert that took place, but Winnie did so much to make sure that her husband’s name became known and become a symbol, so it was normal from the moment I tried to help free him that I meet the one who embodied both the internal resistance, but who was also the wife of a man who was in prison, so I tried to meet her. I made the trip to Soweto – Soweto is 10 miles from the centre of Johannesburg, but it’s another world. It’s another country. At the time no white person went to Soweto except the police or the army. I wasn’t afraid. I managed to make contact with her; she invited me to lunch to eat a curry – she loves curries that burn you’re mouth off… that may have reduced my ability to speak [laughs]… I went to Soweto, I saw this woman, and somehow I fell in love a little, in a respectable way, of course, and I’m still full of admiration.

Did your childhood in Algeria help you a little in South Africa?

Of course, because Algeria taught me that you can lose. I was caught up in a fight that sent me to prison at the age of 17, but I lost. And Algeria, it was the whole of my community – that’s to say that in Algeria, at the time of independence, there were 10 million inhabitants – a million of French origin, and 9 million French Muslims. All of them, one million, left. The only difference with South Africa is that they had a passport, they knew where to go and they could return to France. At the time it was called the mainland. You could return to France. But the white people in South Africa, where were they going to go? They would be thrown into the sea. So, of course, the analogy of the two situations is something I saw with my own eyes. I saw what happened in South Africa but worse. Worse because there wasn’t this way out, to recovery, that white people had… of course it played a key role in my determination to try to do something.

Have you done other things in another country in Africa?

I’ve done lots of things. I’ve helped to resolve many conflicts in Africa. It became a bit like a, sort of, speciality. I became a sangoma, and I arrived with my charm to do things that maybe others weren’t able to do, and I’m known for it by the African elite who often contact me to say “there are people dying here, you need to come. Tell me how you can do it?”… And I’ve had failures. Failures are always very hard in these cases because the surgeon can’t always save the patient he has on his table… but I also have successes.

The end of the film is a little “what’s next?” We imagine you reading newspapers saying to yourself, “so, what isn’t working?” How do you decide what to do?

It doesn’t work like that because I’m not like that, not at all. It’s the circumstances at the time… do I have to act or not. But I act when I think I can. I also take the setbacks and don’t get involved if my luck’s run out. I’m no longer a “soldat perdu”, like we used to say in Algeria.

The next chapter for me, it has two parts: the first part is the continuation of South Africa itself… where is South Africa, where is it going? Is Mandela’s dream being realised or, conversely, is there still a long way to go before it’s realised? That’s the first point. The second: what’s happening elsewhere? Will I have to take my suitcase, again, and start my quest to see where I can still leave a little impact?

Could we speak a bit about the characters with whom you’ve worked in your career, like Mandela and Chirac… characters we only see on television. How was your experience with them?

Like it is with you! I’m not at all intimidated by the position or the power. I always look at my associates as human beings. That’s why I explained this analogy with Mandela – this relationship with Mandela, who also looked at people in the same humane way. When you look at a man of power with the eyes of a man, human, not here to judge or to flatter… something happens to the person, a phenomenon, where he or she feels much freer… finally someone who isn’t here to ask me something, finally someone whom I can talk to, who will eventually tell me the truth, something no one else will dare to do, and it works. You were talking about difficult people… I had a great relationship with Margaret Thatcher, who was not an easy person, but she was really pleased with the conversations we had face to face because, honestly, I wasn’t one of the servants, and I always look at my behaviour; I’m saying that it’s natural for me. I’m not mesmerised by the power, this is not something… maybe I, myself, have another kind of power.

What does your family think of the film, because initially you spoke about your nephews?

My family… my family doesn’t understand. My family did not understand that, for example, in the prisoner exchange deal, for seven months I didn’t contact anyone because I didn’t want them to know where I was, so no phone calls, no documents. I disappeared from planet earth. I remember a conversation with the person I cherish most in my life who asked me, “how could you do something like that to me, disappear for seven months?” and I said, “listen, if life has to be reduced to a bank account, it’s not for me.”

Last question – you have travelled the world, what do you think of Sheffield?

Sheffield has special meaning for me. Sheffield was the first city in a conservative government to declare itself “City of Mandela”. It has a very important meaning for me. When I hear that there is still a hall named after Mandela… remember that when Sheffield declared itself “City of Mandela” Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, they called Mandela “the terrorist”. From the mouth of Margaret Thatcher, “this terrorist”. The ANC was a terrorist organisation at the time, and Sheffield, no, they did exactly the opposite by becoming an ally. How can I remain indifferent to Sheffield under these circumstances?

Fohnjang Ghebdinga & Martin Parsons