Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I spent a weekend enthralled, watching Connie Field's monumental 8½-hour-long epic documentary, Have You Heard From Johannesburg?, on DVD screeners. Those of you who choose to watch it in one go—from 1:00 to 10:30PM on June 27 at the Roxie Film Center in San Francisco—are in for a richly layered and thrilling filmgoing experience. Choosing instead to watch it in three separate parts over as many evenings—which is roughly what I did at home and which you can do both at the Roxie and the Rafael Film Center (starting June 25)—would be less immersive and communal but also less exhausting.

Still, the persistence and eventual exhaustion is part of the necessary vicarious effect of the story, which tracks the 30-year-long effort to destroy South Africa's system of apartheid from both inside and outside the country on multiple fronts. The film is an awesome tribute to an awesome achievement, simply the most important documentary of the year if not the decade. Producer/writer/director/field marshal Connie Field, whose The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1981) is one of my favorite docs, labored on this work for over 10 years. I'm amazed it didn't take her 15. The story, never told before in any medium, involves a literal cast of millions in dozens of countries. I recall seeing one segment at the 2006 Mill Valley Film Festival, Apartheid and the Club of the West—now renamed From Selma to Soweto and featuring the most American content.

I'm not sure how to approach writing about a film of this magnitude and breadth except to refute first of all any possible hesitation a filmgoer might have to committing to something with such a long running time. Even those who can talk themselves into sitting still for the Italian production The Best of Youth, Rivette's Out 1, Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, Tarr's Sátántangó or a Lav Diaz work might not want to devote the same number of hours to a political documentary about another country. But this is truly a film not just about South Africa; it's about the world. The tentacles of both apartheid and apartheid's foes reach deep across the seas, and when the story is done it's clear that the world will never be the same again. It is the saga of a weak, disenfranchised people who inspired the world to join in their struggle for human rights. It's an intricately detailed story that deserves the hours it takes to tell it. One ironic impression I get from viewing it is that so much necessarily goes untold, it should be twice the length it is.

Have You Heard From Johannesburg? is made up of seven films, or stories, shown in three separate parts, which don't have to be seen in order; but, I recommend it for the satisfying effect of historical continuity. Part One comprises three stories. Story 1, Road to Resistance, opens thrillingly with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 after 27 years at Robben Island. Then it flashes back to the early days of apartheid: the ideologues who established it in the late 1940s and its earliest opponents, the African National Congress. The 1960 Sharpeville massacre, a reaction to peaceful demonstrations against having to carry identification pass books, was pivotal in international condemnation of the South African government. It also marked the transition within the country between nonviolent protest and armed struggle against apartheid. Story 1 ends with the major members of the opposition being sentenced to life in prison and Oliver Tambo being exiled abroad.

Story 2, Hell of a Job, profiles the amazing efforts of exiled ANC dissident Oliver Tambo, the true hero of this saga, to fight apartheid from his base in London. His acceptance of help from the Soviet Union branded him a Communist, but he also inspired statesmen like Olof Palme and clergymen like Trevor Huddleston.

Story 3, The New Generation, is about the generation coming up, at first cowed by their parents and the imprisoned/banned/exiled fate of the previous generation of anti-apartheid activists. But among them rose Steve Biko (killed by police in 1977) and the courageous high school students of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The segment also focuses on the Netherlands' historical relationship with South Africa and why the Dutch joined with other African countries like Nigeria and Tanzania in recommending that South Africa be ousted from the United Nations.

Part Two opens with Story 4, Fair Play, which details the hard-won boycotts inflicted on South Africa's beloved white-only Springboks rugby team by Dennis Brutus and the rest of the athletic world, as well as the history of attempts to exclude South Africa from the Olympics going back to the 1964 Tokyo games. One great effect of other countries' anti-apartheid activities was to force them to examine racism in their own backyards, as when New Zealanders had to face the fact that Maoris were barred from trying out for their own All Blacks team, South Africa's greatest rival. Field's montage sequences, which cross-cut sports footage with shots of demonstrators sprinting from police and throwing stones, emphasize the intimate colonial connection between sports and apartheid not just in South Africa but in places like New Zealand, where the ferment during the 1981 Springboks tour was thought by some to be the closest that country came to civil war in the 20th century.

Story 5, From Selma to Soweto, focuses on the US Congressional Black Caucus's role in destroying apartheid through corporate divestment and economic sanctions. TransAfrica, a lobbying group headed by Randall Robinson, took the anti-apartheid movement to a new level by exposing the collusion between the South African and US governments in perpetuating the regime. This is former Congressman and currently Oakland mayor Ron Dellums' shining hour and one of then-President Ronald Reagan's most ignominious moments. Most glorious of all, it's the story of how the engine of grassroots activism overturned US government policy, exposing the hypocrisy of "constructive engagement" in favor of economic isolation. The shaming spectacle of an elderly Rosa Parks allowing herself to be arrested on the anniversary of her historic refusal to go to the back of the bus, pointed out the shared racist histories of the two countries.

Part Three starts with Story 6, The Bottom Line, which relates the surprisingly fascinating history of the economic embargo against banks and other companies profiting from anti-apartheid. Since for blacks within South Africa calling for withdrawal of foreign investments was a crime punishable by death, it was up to activists outside the country to come up with creative protests against companies like Polaroid, who since 1938 had been providing cameras and film for the identification badges required in blacks' pass books. The 1976 shooting of high school students in Soweto galvanized the anti-apartheid movement among American college students, who joined the boycott against Barclays Bank and other corporations who had a lot to lose in their ties with South Africa. In desperation the South African government resorted to propaganda and disinformation campaigns, sabotage, burning down anti-apartheid offices and even fatal bombings of prominent activists like Ruth First. Seeing their businesses wither, South African businessmen took the unprecedented step of meeting independently with exiled ANC President Oliver Tambo, lighting the fuse for a new post-apartheid business model.

Story 7, Free At Last, returns to South Africa, a pariah country on the verge of economic ruin and violent revolution. A new coalition of anti-apartheid activists, the United Democratic Front, brought the government to its knees with the support of Front Line countries such as Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Angola. One of this series' most valuable running themes is the crucial role that other African countries played in helping South African dissidents fight apartheid. Finally having conceded defeat, in 1990 the government lifted the ban against the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress and released Nelson Mandela from prison a week later. The film closes with Oliver Tambo, now barely able to walk, coming home from his 30 years' exile, and the election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa in 1994.

The music credits at the end of each segment made me long for a series soundtrack album (perhaps someday?), which would be the definitive compilation of songs that kept South Africans and the rest of the world fighting for the anti-apartheid cause. As we saw in Soundtrack for a Revolution, a recent documentary about the music that inspired and was inspired by the American civil rights movement, that story would make up a whole other series of documentaries!

Aside from the feeling that I now know the basic story and major players in the war against South African apartheid, a few other insights will stay in my memory of this monumental cinematic achievement. One indication of the long gestation period of this work is the list of all those participants who died before the movie was finished. I'm grateful to Connie Field for having gotten their stories and released it now, when many of those directly involved are still vibrantly active and still around to be thanked for their hard work and sacrifice.

Another valuable insight that can't be stressed more in documentaries about the fight against racism and injustice is into the careful planning and execution of actions by the victims themselves. It's easy for lazy students of history to assume that victims are always already only victims, and in this case it's especially easy to assume that the poor South African blacks cowered in their repressive country or in prison while foreign politicians, activists and rock stars fought apartheid for them, as if this history were a Hollywood cliché. Have You Heard From Johannesburg? throughout proves that this was not the case. The film's title itself, taken from the lyrics of Gil Scott-Heron's 1976 song, emphasizes from—not about. The important information comes in the form of dispatches from people in that country or in exile, not just foreign reportage about people there.* As Scott-Heron sings, "They tell me that our brothers over there / are defyin' the Man / We don't know for sure because the news / we get is unreliable, man." Connie Field's film feels reliable because of her masterful handling of the massive temporal and geographical scope of the story of apartheid's victim-heroes.

*I'm indebted to
Chuleenan Svetvilas's article/interview with Connie Field.

Cross-published on

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Frako, for providing an incisive summary of such a gargantuan undertaking. It definitely makes me want to see the whole documentary!

Mike Black