The opening shot to this fascinating documentary shows an unassuming man playing a card game, accompanied by a voiceover. The setting itself feels theatrical, as though subsequent events are a new fictional-feature spin on the release of one of the world’s most iconic statesmen, Nelson Mandela, and the end of Apartheid in South Africa. We soon learn that this is French-Algerian businessman and international diplomat Jean-Yves Ollivier, known as ‘Monsieur Jacques’. He’s real and has quite a story to tell, doing so in an unanticipated fashion.

This well-kept ‘secret weapon’ behind Mandela’s release is supported by on-camera confirmation from a ‘star-studded cast’, including Winnie Mandela (ANC activist and Mandela’s ex), Thabo Mbeki (former President of South Africa) and even Pik Botha (former Minister of Foreign Affairs for South Africa at the time), plus other heads of state, generals, diplomats, master spies, etc. The film skilfully uses news documentary footage to illustrate the story being told and events unfolding along the timeline, to really capture the imagination of the atmosphere and tension of the time, like any good thriller would. Directors Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson simplify the complex political situation, adding excitement with the help of their lead character and writer Stephen Smith.

There is undoubtedly an ego to Monsieur Jacques that helped move political mountains, and the directors’ film gives a canvas for this key player to shine through in all his formerly anonymous glory. However, it’s not arrogantly and dramatically done, but understated and dignified, so much so, that you sometimes crave for more detail as to just how this individual ticks, how he did some of the best negotiating in history. On the other hand, there is still a guarded air of mystique as to his methods that pricks curiosity further; here’s just hoping that it didn’t merely boil down to a healthy financial offering.

Monsieur Jacques – who reveals how he orchestrated the removal of South African troops out of Angola and was key in a prisoner swap in Mozambique in the late Eighties – looks like a wheeler dealer (complete with villain) who looks like he enjoys too much of the fine life. However, he subtly wins you over as being one of the most remarkable politicians in history. This gets you thinking of how many more ‘hidden’ middlemen there are out there who also have compelling stories to tell, but might be sworn to state secrecy. If this were a novel plot, you would be hard pressed to believe it, and yet there feels like a whole lot more information ‘missing’ from the film that you can’t quite put a finger on. Perhaps there is just too much for one sitting?

In the end you realise just how monumental this film is to our understanding of historical events – and how timely with Mandela’s death. There is definitely more to Monsieur Jacques that we might never get to hear, but are spurred on to go forth and discover. In that case, it’s a documentary well done.