Have You Heard From Johannesburg
Director Connie Field’s documentary “Have You Heard From Johannesburg” is a seven-film, eight-and-a-half-hour, comprehensive history of the world-wide movement to abolish South Africa’s racist apartheid system. The seven films will be presented at Film Forum, from April 14 – 27, in three parts with each part requiring a separate admission. The parts can been seen out of order without loss of comprehension.
Fearing a dry history lesson I attended a press screening of the second film in part two, “From Selma to Soweto.” What I found instead was a documentary that was accessible, lively, dramatic and educational.
In the 1980s African American leaders, emboldened by the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, challenged U.S. foreign policy in South Africa. They asked the U.S. government to divest itself of all investments in South Africa. Ronald Reagan claimed that economic sanctions against South Africa would harm the very people the protestors wanted to help. The protestors’ response was “How much worse off can these people get?” Reagan also cited the need for the U.S. to have access to certain minerals from South Africa. There was also fear of communist influence in South Africa if the U.S. divested.
“From Selma to Soweto” expertly inter-cuts news footage and interviews of the time with the main participants today making them real, compelling and still enthused about their cause 30 years later. The tremendous amount of archival footage intelligently used in the film, along with the current day interviews, shows how the grass roots anti-apartheid movement took on national proportions leading to protests and “sit-ins” and mobilized a cross section of the population. Demonstrations sprang up across the country especially at Ivy League schools that had investments in South Africa. Protestors ranging from celebrities to everyday people showed up in Washington to get arrested. Celebrity arrests included Harry Belafonte, Rosa Parks, Tony Randall, Paul Newman and Stevie Wonder.
The fight was finally taken to the U.S. congress where a two-thirds majority was needed to defeat the President’s will. Being an ethical film critic I will not reveal the ending except to say that anyone with even a passing knowledge of recent history (yes I consider the 1980s recent history) will know how this turns out. What you may not know, or may have forgotten, are the details of this part of the fight to end apartheid and the personalities involved, which are so nicely presented and preserved in “From Selma to Soweto.”
Based on just the 90 minutes of “From Selma to Soweto” it is a safe bet that “Have You Heard From Johannesburg,” seen in its entirety, will be infinitely more immediate, informative and gratifying than an over-simplified, “Hollywoodized” story like the recent “rah, rah” post-apartheid movie “Invictus.” I hope very much to see the other seven hours of “Have You Heard from Johnannesburg.”
“Have You Heard from Johannesburg,” director Connie Field, 2010
Clarity Films, 8 ½ hours