(Lee Hirsch, USA, 2002)


When this movie received a FIPRESCI award at the 2003 Sydney Film Festival, it was accompanied by a citation declaring that it "restores music to a position of integrity within documentary film". This raises the question: when exactly was that position lost?

On the contrary, music seems to me to enjoy an unassailable pride of place in documentary production worldwide, whether on television or at specialist film festivals. Chronicles of styles and profiles of performers seemingly always offer rich material.

Perhaps the praise that Amandla! so fulsomely deserves makes better sense if we compare it to another music doco, Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (1999). That film, as fine and inspiring as it is, performed a typical sleight of hand. In it, the beauty of the music overshadowed any proper attention to the history and politics of Cuba. We were left with only a bogus notion of the eternal soul of the Cuban people.

Amandla! (subtitled A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony) has a much surer focus. The film indeed teems with music, rhythm and soul, but never lets us forget for a single moment the radical politics which this music served, and the miserable social conditions from which it sprang.

Directed with enormous conviction by Lee Hirsch, Amandla! details the story of apartheid in South Africa, and the tradition of "freedom music" that rose up against it, often in slyly subversive ways.

In interviews Hirsch presents himself and his collaborators, in a somewhat imperial way, as the first musicologists of an undocumented history. In the film itself, rather mercifully, he allows the participants in this history to speak for themselves.

The film is sensitive to the many different strands of freedom music, and the diverse ideological needs it expressed according to the precise period in time. From the rousing anthems of Mbongeni Ngema, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekala to the instrumentals of Abdullah Ibrahim and the gorgeous guitar ballads of Vusi Mahlasela, the spirit of this revolution expresses itself in many artistic forms.

The emotion attached to this torrent of music comes to a head, late in the film, in Sibongile Khumalo’s rendition of "The Untold Story". And no one who sees this movie will ever forget the rapture created around the sight of Nelson Mandela dancing with the crowd after his release from prison.

Beyond the performances, there are many intense, revealing interviews. A death row warden at Pretoria Central Prison gives us an unnerving insight into the mindset of the oppressors. As Sophie Mgcina and Dolly Rathebe sing together as age-old friends, recalling the lyrics of "You Strike the Rock", their angry idealism resurfaces powerfully.

For me, the intelligence of this film was clinched in a particular effect of its structure, so superbly edited by Johanna Demetrakas. There is a section where we pass from the big issues of apartheid to the role of love songs. Although such songs are, in the African context, no less political than any other, this transition threatens to become a moment when the filmmaker might lose his grip on history and take refuge in those human emotions that are timeless and placeless.

But no: instead, the film instantly connects the love song tradition to a different kind of intimate testimony, as we hear the heartbreaking account by Thandi Modise of how she was tortured in prison during her pregnancy – and of the dearly beloved daughter to whom, against all the odds, she gave birth.

In this scene, Hirsch’s fusion of the personal and political is total, and sublime.

© Adrian Martin November 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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