Simply Irresistible

in 50th Sydney Film Festival

by Richard Kuipers

Like the audience that responded with rousing cheers at the screening of “Amandla! A Revolution In Four –Part Harmony”, the FIPRESCI jury in Sydney found Lee Hirsch’s documentary simply irresistible. Featured early in the festival programme, “Amandla!” held on to win our award from a very strong field of eligible documentaries. Well travelled and frequently honoured on the festival circuit already, Lee Hirsch’s beautiful account of the role played by music in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa can now include the FIPRESCI stamp of approval on its impressive list of awards.

The subject of apartheid has been treated extensively in documentary but rarely with the spirit, energy and mastery of sound and image in Amandla! Lee Hirsch spent 9 years making “Amandla!” and has created a revelation in both subject and form. The songs that inspired South African blacks to struggle against apartheid for over 40 years are largely unrecognised outside their immediate communities and most have not been professionally recorded. Hirsch’s tribute to the writers and performers has immortalised these songs and gives audiences a stirring reminder of music’s power to effect political change. Spirited renditions of songs including key anthems “Beware Verwoerd” by Vuyisile Mini, Strike Vilakazi’s “Meadowlands” and the communal singalong Toyi-Toyi Chant are beautifully mixed with interviews and rarely-seen archival footage to deliver a fresh and exciting analysis of one of the 20th century’s most shameful examples of sustained human rights abuses.

Nine years in the making, “Amandla!” represents a major triumph for Hirsch who visited the republic in the early 90’s as an idealistic young white supporter of the anti-apartheid movement and remained in Johannesburg for five years while preparing this film. His assemblage of footage from Sharpeville in 1960, the Soweto massacre of 1976 and the capitulation of white rule in 1994 is given new life by the parallel stories of how “freedom music” was created and used to resist an inhuman regime. Required viewing no matter how many documentaries you have seen on this topic, “Amandla!” is a superbly presented history lesson that blends music and politics into an uplifting whole and also looks forward to the challenges facing post-apartheid South Africa. Sifiso Ntuli, one of the activists profiled in the film, points at the problems of unemployment, poverty and the effects of AIDS that remain devastating long after the transition of power. To overcome these massive obstacles, South Africans of all colours will once again require the spirit of Amandla – a Xhosa word that translates roughly as “power to the people” – to play its part.