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Redemption Song: 'Amandla!' Sings of Revolution and Freedom

By Michael Rose

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, a film about music’s role in the long struggle for freedom in South Africa, melted the hearts of audiences at this year’s Sundance Festival. But the first screening almost turned into a meltdown.

Leaving a grueling, sleepless, 36-hour crash-edit session, the film’s director, Lee Hirsch, grabbed a plane from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. The film’s producer, Sherry Simpson, followed on a later flight. When Simpson arrived she expected to say hello to Hirsch, find her room and finally be able to doze off. Instead of greeting her warmly, Hirsch was screaming: There was no sound on the master tape; it was 9:00 p.m., and the premiere screening was set for 9:00 the next morning; and if that wasn’t bad enough, The New York Times’ film critic Elvis Mitchell was slated to be in the audience.

Instead of panicking, Simpson went into über-producer mode. She called the edit facility and rounded-up Graf Air Couriers in Los Angeles, which somehow got a new master tape “through the snow of Utah” and into their hands by 8:30 the next morning—another miracle in a series of many that made this project possible.

The frazzled and exhausted production team sat through the first screening in a near catatonic state. There was a momentary silence when the lights came up after the film ended. “I was terrified, I couldn’t speak,” Hirsch recalls. Then, as Simpson puts it, “The response was just huge.”

Mitchell wrote a favorable review. Screening after screening was sold out, and Amandla! earned the festival’s Documentary Audience Award, as well as the Freedom of Expression Award. The filmmakers’ nine-year quest to bring this story to the screen had paid off.

Of course, they didn’t think it would take nine years to complete. When Hirsch first contacted Simpson and pitched the idea to her, he thought, “I’ll have this film done in the next three months.” He was wrong about how long it would take, but right to call Simpson. She had worked on Capitol Hill for Mickey Leland, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and helped him with his efforts to financially cripple the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Leland died in a plane crash in the early ’90s en route to deliver food to a famished Ethiopia, and Simpson went looking for a new career. Eventually, it came to her. “I had this epiphany that I would be a filmmaker,” she explains. With a passion for music and a new-found calling, Simpson found herself in Los Angeles producing music videos and representing London-based director Julien Temple.

While Simpson was building a career in the music business, Hirsch was stirring things up at his boarding school in Vermont. As a junior, he’d been elected to the board of trustees, and he tried to convince his fellow trustees, the adults, to disinvest in South Africa. “All these CEO types ate me alive,” he recalls. “The last thing they wanted to do was to reinvent their investment portfolios.”

Undaunted, Hirsch delved deeper into the issues. As he studied South Africa he became obsessed with the music. “Where other people listened to the newscaster, I heard the music in the footage, when there were 3,000 people in the street protesting.”

Hirsch met an exiled black South African teenage activist, who had been tortured. The South African taught him some of the protest songs. Hirsch invited him to teach the whole school the songs; it was a powerful experience.

His passion for the music deepened as he went away to college but his parents blocked a planned trip to South Africa. After graduating, he decided he wanted to be a filmmaker, and the idea for Amandla! came to him. “It was literally like a flash—Wow! What if I could make a music documentary about the role of freedom songs?” He sold his car, bought a plane ticket and took a Hi-8 video camera to South Africa. Once again his mother tried to stop him. This time she called the State Department and had someone advise him not to go. He went, stayed with a Zulu family and started taping rallies and protests. “I fell in love with South Africa,” he maintains.

He returned home to New York, wrote a proposal and cut a clip reel. He knew he needed a producer to make his dream project happen. Friends told him to call this fantastic music video producer, Sherry Simpson. He had no idea of her background with South Africa.

His call, and his footage, struck a chord; she was in. “This kind of ignited my wild activist side,” Simpson says. The unlikely pair—a young, white Jewish guy from Long Island and an older, successful African-American woman—became best friends over the next six months as they talked on the phone about how they could tell this story about the power of music.

Six months later they were on their way to South Africa. It was 1995, Nelson Mandela had just been elected president and the last vestiges of Apartheid were about to fall as people prepared to vote for local officials. Using her music business connections, Simpson arranged for the South African branch of recording company giant Capitol EMI to donate a sound truck. The filmmakers were ready to film a giant pre-election rally. Mandela would be there and this would give them the opportunity to capture history.

Everything was set up the day before—the sound truck, three film cameras and a steadicam--but then a torrential downpour began. The next morning the rain stopped, and the stadium filled. When Simpson heard the music, saw Mandela dance across the stage with thousands of people screaming his name, she fell to her knees and cried. She remembers the impact of that moment: “In saying his name, people were expressing their own freedom in their own voices.” She was thankful that they were there to document that day. She thought about all the people who had worked to see this come true, like her late boss. It gave the team the fuel they needed to get the film done.

As with most noble documentary efforts, funding was always an issue. “Same old story: credit cards; massive juggling; beg, borrow, steal; and accumulate a massive amount of debt—but keep going,” says Hirsch. A few financial angels helped. An American Indian tribe, a Finnish broadcaster, the Ford Foundation, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, a South African production company and American cable caster HBO all pitched in. Their support allowed the filmmakers to gather 250 hours of footage and tell the story they wanted to tell.

They avoided shooting stiff, proper interviews, and instead tried to create a sense of what it was like to be in these people’s lives. They bring the audience into a conversation between two women who reminisce about the struggles and exchange snippets of songs they once sang in protest. Hugh Masekela plays the piano and records a song as he talks about the impact the music had on the movement. A group of former activists hang out in an apartment and spontaneously break into song. The songs overlap from one scene to the next. “The amazing thing about South Africa is that you don’t have to do much to get people to sing,” says Hirsch. Because of the shared repertoire of the people they filmed, he and Simpson were able to create musical rounds in the editing. It’s a powerful effect to see and hear the musical connections.

While the music lifts our spirits, there is the constant reminder of what gave birth to these songs. A harrowing walk through death row with Johan Steinberg, the former warden of the Pretoria Prison, provides a look at what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Steinberg matter-of-factly describes taking the prisoners to their final encounter with the hangman. As he describes the death process, we hear the eerie sound of prisoners singing in the background at the still-functioning facility.

Oddly enough, Steinberg was invited to a screening of the film in South Africa; he was the first one to arrive. Hirsch and Simpson were worried about what would happen to this guy in a room of activists and freedom fighters; after seeing the film, they would realize that he had been responsible for the death of people they’d known. But instead of being attacked, “He got a ton of love from people,” according to Hirsch. “Women were dancing with him, people were giving him hugs, it was absolutely amazing.” Hirsch feels this shows that reconciliation in South Africa is real. “If you show remorse, people are willing to take you back into society,” he says.

As Amandla! makes its way out into the world, first in theaters—Artisan Entertainment is releasing the film in February—and then on HBO next year, the film will give audiences a chance to be moved by the power of music and learn about the possibility of reconciliation.


Michael Rose serves on the IDA Board of Directors.