During South Africa's black apartheid days, music played an important role in the struggle of the nation’s black majority. Interviews with composers and performers reveal the origins and meanings of songs and the changing nature of the music during critical points in the history of the resistance movement.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
Lee Hirsch's documentary about the critical role played by music in the anti-apartheid movement is a beautifully made and inspiring tribute to everyone who has ever raised a voice against obscene forms of government. The subject of apartheid has been treated extensively but you'll have to search hard to find the kind of spirit and mastery of technique displayed here. Amandla! is a triumph for its maker, who arrived in the republic in the early 90s as an idealistic young white supporter of the black cause and remained in Johannesburg for five years while preparing this film. The time he spent earning the trust of interviewees and gathering the knowledge to tell their stories has paid off with a documentary that is a revelation in subject and form.
The songs that inspired the struggle for over 40 years are largely unrecognised outside their immediate communities and most have not been professionally recorded. This study of the writers and performers immortalises those songs and gives audiences an understanding of how and why they became anthems of the oppressed. Spirited renditions of key songs including 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 human rights abuse. Hirsch's editing 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 make a stand against the 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.
Review by Louise Keller:
A stirring documentary about the role music has played in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, Amandla! takes a candid look through the years at its relevance and how it forms an integral part in the communication and expression of its people. Just as rap artists tell their stories through music, the black South African people use music as naturally as speech. Born in New York, director Lee Hirsch became interested in the anti-apartheid movement during his school days, when an exiled black South African taught him freedom songs and told him stories of oppression under apartheid. Nine years in the making with over 200 hours of material, including original and archive footage, Amandla! begins and ends at the grave site of an unsung hero, songwriter and activist Vuyisile Mini, who was executed and buried in the Pauper’s Cemetery.
The word ‘Amandla’ means ‘power to the people’, and jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim comments at the end of the film, that this is the first revolution ever to be carried out in ‘four part harmony’, implying that music is fundamental to the struggle. We meet exiled musicians and singers like trumpeter Hugh Masekela, songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, singers Sibongile Khumalo and Miriam Makeba who each talk about their experiences and recollections. It is impossible not to be affected by former political prisoner and current Parliament member Thandi Modise, who whispers her tragic story. Five months pregnant when imprisoned, Modise was under interrogation when her waters broke and in despair, when left alone in her cell, she contemplated drowning herself in the toilet bowl. But when she felt her baby kicking, she too wanted to fight, and began to sing - until her baby was born.
Also disturbing is the interview with the warden on death row, a white South African, who talks about how much he liked working there, getting a kick out of the power he held. Subversive songs, questioning songs, songs that recall events, songs about struggle, victory and freedom – we hear them all as we glimpse a taste of history from the 40s to the 90s, culminating in the glorious moment when Nelson Mandela was released and made the first democratically elected president. As the remains of Vuyisile Mini are reburied in 1998 with the honour due, the people sing ‘This hero is not dead, he is only sleeping.’ With its visceral music pounding in our hearts, Amandla! is an informative and inspiring story about the courage of a unique nation, whose passion resonates with history.
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CAST: Documentary with appearances by Walter Cronkite, F.W. de Klerk, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jesse Jackson, Duma Ka Ndlovu, Ronnie Kasrils, Sibongile Khumalo, Vusi Mahlasela, Miriam Makeba, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela
PRODUCER: Lee Hirsch, Sherry Simpson
DIRECTOR: Lee Hirsch
SCRIPT: Lee Hirsch
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Brand Jordaan, Ivan Leathers, Clive Sacke
EDITOR: Johanna Demetrakas
MUSIC: Featuring African Devoted Artists, The ANC National Choir, Gerhard Botes, Audrey Brown, Jeremy Cronin, The Community of Diepkloof Soweto, Peter ‘Commissar’ Dimba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ronnie Kasrils, Peter Khumalo, Sibongile Khumalo, ‘Big Voice’ Jack Lerole, Sibusiso Lerole, Andile Magengefele, Miriam Makeba, Peter Makurube, Manala Manazini.
PRODUCTION DESIGN: n/a
OTHER: AWARDS: Winner Audience Award, Sundance Film Festival;
Winner Freedom of Expression Award, Sundance Film Festival;
Winner, FIPRESCI Award, Sydney Film Festival;
LANGUAGE: English / Zulu
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Niche/Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 6, 2003