Kentridge's short animated films are typically made from a series of large-scale charcoal and pastel drawings which the artist repeatedly alters and interchanges as his narrative progresses. Ubu Tells the Truth marks an important change in technique, as Kentridge has combined images from documentary films and photographs together with moving puppets as well as his animated drawings. This film was made from a basis of thirty drawings. Sleeper (Tate P78231) is a related etching he made in the same year. Much of the footage was originally created to accompany action on stage in the multi-media theatre work Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), in which Kentridge collaborated with the Handspring Puppet Company in Johannesburg. It was subsequently edited to accentuate the drama implicit in the series of images. The result is a greater degree of abstraction than in his earlier films and a more heightened violence.
The theatre piece was loosely modelled on a proto-absurdist play by the French playwright Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) called Ubu Roi (1896). The film refers to Jarry's play indirectly by the occasional appearance of a cartoon king swollen with power and ignorance. However, the main protagonist of this film is a camera on a tripod, which sees everything and then uses its knowledge to try to wipe out non-corroborating witnesses. Documentary footage of South African state security police charging unarmed protestors during the apartheid era is inter-cut with Kentridge's drawings of political suspects being shot, stabbed, hanged, tortured, maimed and thrown off buildings. Other material includes the story of a security police killer whose wife is anxious about his nocturnal absences, attributing them to infidelity. Her relief on discovering the truth and the couple's subsequent reconciliation provide a metaphor for one of the central tenets of this film: the irony in the workings of the new South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was a body set up, in 1996, to examine human rights abuses during the apartheid era, with the difficult task of rewarding confession with amnesty and truth-telling with reconciliation. In this way, as the most terrible crimes are uncovered, the most extra-ordinary clemency and forgiveness are required. In this film the camera stands as symbol of the witness who, watching atrocities without acting to prevent them, becomes as guilty as those who have actively perpetrated them. Ubu Tells the Truth implicates viewer, recorder and perpetrator equally in the violence it depicts.
Dan Cameron, Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge, London 1999, p.79, reproduced (colour) pp. 32, 39, 78 and 80
Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, William Kentridge, exhibition catalogue, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1998, pp.118-9, reproduced p.125