Kentridge makes short animation films from large-scale drawings in charcoal and pastel on paper. Each drawing, which contains a single scene, is successively altered through erasing and redrawing and photographed in 16 or 35mm film at each stage of its evolution. Remnants of successive stages remain on the paper, and provide a metaphor for the layering of memory which is one of Kentridge's principal themes. Most of the films in this series, titled Drawings for Projection (see Tate T07482-5, T07479 and T07481), are set in the devastated landscape south of Johannesburg where derelict mine and factories, mine dumps and slime dams have created a terrain of nostalgia and loss. Kentridge's repeated erasure and redrawing, which leave marks but not complete transformation, together with the jerky movement of the animation, operate in parallel with his depiction of human processes, both physical and political, enacted on the landscape and, in this film in particular, on human bodies.
History of the Main Complaint is the sixth film in the series and is based on twenty-one drawings. It was made shortly after the establishment in South Africa of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was set up to conduct a series of public hearings into abuses of human rights perpetrated during the apartheid era. The hearings, in which individuals told their stories of personal suffering, were held in order to make reparation for abuse and in the hope of creating reconciliation between peoples. The underlying theme of this film is a (self) recognition of white responsibility. This is played out through a 'medical' investigation into the body of Soho Eckstein, the white property-developing magnate and greedy-capitalist protagonist of most of the preceding films, which provides the starting point for a revelation of conscience.
In the beginning of the film Soho lies in a hospital bed in a coma. A Monteverdi madrigal plays on the soundtrack. Clone Sohos appear in pin-stripe suits to examine the recumbent body and penetrate it with stethoscopes. This activates the machinery of Soho's office desk (seen in earlier films) - paper punch, telephone, adding machine, ticker tape, rubber stamp, typewriter - suggesting a journey into the layers of memory which constitute the unconscious. The film cuts repeatedly between the clacking and ringing world inside Soho's body-mind and the view through a car windscreen as he drives along a night road. As his body is tested, the brutally violated bodies of black Africans appear at the side of the road. Red crosses appear at points of impact, on the victim's skull, and then on Soho's. Finally a figure runs across the road and is hit by Soho's car. As the body is flung up against the windscreen, Soho, in his hospital bed, awakens from his coma. He has discovered 'the weight keeping him unconscious' (Kentridge quoted in William Kentridge 1998, p.112) and, through its discovery, is restored to strength and power back at his office desk. However, this restoration is a return to a position which was shown, in an earlier film in the series, Mine 1991 (Tate T07484), to be one of abusive white authority and it is therefore not clear that he has made any moral progress. Kentridge has left this deliberately open-ended through the bowl of blue water (symbolising emotional connection and healing in his films) in Soho's hospital room, which remains untouched throughout the film. In the exploration of memory portrayed in this film Soho has not actually found the truth of his complaint (a complaint which is also a complaint against him). The investigation into the troubled, amnesiac, white South African psyche, explored by Kentridge in his films, has not yet been completed in life or in art. Tate T07481 provides a later development of Kentridge's themes.
Dan Cameron, Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge, London 1999, pp. 84-93, reproduced (col.) pp.69, 82, 85-93
Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, William Kentridge, exhibition catalogue, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1998, pp.110-15, reproduced (col.) pp.112-5, (detail) 109