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Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Nelson Mandela Freedom March, 1988 in HAVE YOU HEARD FROM JOHANNESBURG (Photo: ACTSA)

Produced & Directed by Connie Field
Released by Clarity Films
French with English subtitles
USA. 510 min. Not Rated
Part 1: “The Road to Resistance,” “Hell of a Job” and “The New Generation.” Part 2: “Fair Play”  & “From Selma to Soweto.” Part 3: “The Bottom Line” & "Free at Last”   

Africa is spotlighted at two series in New York in April—the premiere of the documentary series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, detailing the worldwide struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the 17th annual African Film Festival New York. Beginning at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the program of 13 features from 18 countries will travel throughout the U.S.

Have You Heard debuts theatrically before its public television broadcast. Over eight-and-a-half hours, American producer/director Connie Field chronologically and thematically logs the rise and fall of apartheid from 1948 to 1994 through interviews with participants in the global struggle and extensive footage from international news coverage.

The concluding segment, Free at Last, can serve as an overall synopsis, particularly in showing how the imprisoned Nelson Mandela was pro-actively marketed as a rallying cry. The rich detail about the grassroots responses abroad make most of the other episodes more interesting, particularly The Road to Resistance. Interviews with ordinary people—workers, ministers, students—who were inspired to take a stand in countries far from Africa—are far more effective than the preening of full-time lobbyists and politicians that weakens the longest episode, From Selma to Soweto, on the role of U.S. organizers against the Reagan Administration’s policies. For myopic Americans, Field emphasizes the importance of Sweden as the first Western country to support and host the anti-apartheid struggle and Dutch activists in criticizing Afrikaners as distorters of their shared heritage.

Fair Play is essential viewing for anyone who didn’t quite get what the fuss was all about in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. The significance of the national Springbok rugby team is brought home here by players, fans, and activists, who relish recounting their experiences. While the momentum for sanctions is touted throughout the series for dooming the apartheid regime, The Bottom Line has the most extensive interviews with men who worked for the South African government and businesses. They explain how the policies of global banks and corporations eventually weakened the countrys economy.

Activists and exiles from South Africa’s Indian and “colored” communities are included throughout, particularly the work of the United Democratic Front of the 1980’s and on. The tireless travels of Oliver Tambo as the African National Congress’s anointed leader in exile are documented in Hell of a Job. (The controversial Winnie Mandela is only briefly heard.) The New Generation is excellent at explaining the important role of the martyred Steve Biko in the black consciousness movement of the 1970’s, especially for those who have sung along with the Peter Gabriel song without really knowing who Biko was. The anti-apartheid songs that rallied the world are featured throughout, with the overall title taken from Gil Scott Heron’s anthem. Each episode is dedicated as a memorial to different activists.

History belongs to the victors, of course, especially deserved when good triumphs over evil. A pervasive tone of smug self-congratulation throughout keeps the series from being as definitive as the documentaries The World at War, Eyes on the Prize, or Shoah. Nevertheless, Have You Heard From Johannesburg is a stirring tribute to the decades of remarkable fortitude and persistence of individuals who, working together, achieved one of the great political and moral victories of the 20th century.

Several films at the African Film Festival also explore Africans’ continuing tangled relationship with Europe and commemorate the 50th anniversary of 17 African nations’ independence from colonial rule. The Absence, the opening night film written and directed by Mama Keïta, offers, for a returning prodigal son, a depressingly stark contrast between his successful life as a scientist in Paris and his hometown in Senegal. Adama, his community’s brightest hope, has for over 15 years sent money to maintain a home for his grandmother and deaf sister, who has tricked him into coming home to face his traditional responsibilities. His reminiscences quickly turn to resentment familiar from emigrant stories everywhere, and tensions take a chilling turn over a long frightening night, shot intensely with thrilling, hand-held camera, when Adama tracks his sister’s descent into a dark underworld of prostitution, pimps, thugs, drugs, and violence.

Writer/director Eliane de Latour’s intimate Beyond the Ocean portrays additional tensions among the African Diaspora. Shad (Fraser James) and Otho (Djédjé Apal) are old friends from the Ivory Coast. In contrast to their high hopes of material wealth, both are scraping by as illegal immigrants in the underground economy of a Spanish portOtho energetically as an unlicensed cabbie and Shad reluctantly dealing drugs. After a police raid, only Shad manages to escape deportation. On a discouraging odyssey through Europe, he is shunned by Africans in France, who accuse him of escaping punishment as a former soldier from Liberia or Uganda. Jamaicans in Britain rail against him for being descended from slave sellers, among the (less convincing) sexual misunderstandings. Back home, the bitter Otho harangues businesses to capitalize on African culture, then confronts Shad when he returns with Western (and stolen) goods so to exaggerate his success in Europe. Their final physical showdown is a sad comparison to their childhood tales of the battles of legendary warriors.

Burning in the Sun could have been just another inspiring promotion for the noble work of a non-government organization, one that brings experts in small-scale solar energy technology to countries with more sun than modern infrastructure. But director Cambria Matlow found in Mali a young man whose personal story and drive to succeed so parallels Barack Obama’s that the film’s sociological insights almost outweigh the accomplishment of bringing cheap electricity to poor villages. Daniel Dembele was born in Italy, where his mother from Tuscany was an art student and his father a renowned Malian painter, who died when Daniel was young. A forceful presence, his mother founded a nonprofit organization in Mali, while Daniel roamed the world until he latched onto combining community organizing with the solar panel installation business. Skeptical villagers sarcastically call him a white man, though the forward-looking and charismatic Daniel, multilingual and multicultural, is at ease with them, the foreign experts, government officials, and local suppliers.

Two of the 25 short films apply creative storytelling to biographies that portend more good work coming out of the continent in the future. Among four films on soccer to commemorate the first World Cup in Africa later this year, Between the Cup and the Election features a group of enterprising Congolese student filmmakers seeking the story of their countrymen who, in 1974, went to Germany as the first black African team to compete. While learning their own history of their country, then known as Zaire, they track down former members of the Leopards to get very personal insights into the political and propaganda issues of sport. In Nora, directors Alla Kovgan and David Hinton follow choreographer Nora Chipaumire as she retells through dance the difficult challenges of poverty and abuse she faced growing up in Zimbabwe. To an energetic score by Thomas Mapfumo, she enlists a whole village, from children to elderly ladies, to sing and dance, bringing her triumphant life to life. Nora Lee Mandel
April 20, 2010



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