Jewish Journal

Songs of Power

Lee Hirsch's documentary "Amandla!" explores the protest music surrounding apartheid.

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Feb. 27, 2003 at 7:00 pm

On a December day in 1993, an anxious Lee Hirsch sat on a 747 bound for riot-torn South Africa with $600 and a small video camera.

The 20-year-old filmmaker didn't know a soul in Johannesburg, but he had two telephone numbers and a mission: To make a documentary about the protest music that had spurred the anti-apartheid movement. To buy his ticket, he had sold his car and ignored the State Department official who had called about the travel advisory.

"It was months after [American student] Amy Biehl had been murdered in Cape Town, and the plane was empty," said Hirsch, a politically progressive Jew from Long Island. "I was very scared, and I was prepared to turn around and go home the next day."

Instead, he struggled for nine years to make "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony," which won the audience and Freedom of Expression Awards at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and opens today in Los Angeles. Named for the Xhosa word for power, the exuberant movie explores the history of apartheid and the music that helped overturn it. While some of the songs have previously been featured on the soundtracks of fictional films such as "Cry Freedom," the documentary is the first to explore the phenomenon of protest music itself.

For the energetic Hirsch, who punctuates conversation with youthful invectives such as "awesome," one inspiration was the Jewish mandate of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

"I learned about it in a college class on the early Chasidim, the Jewish radicals of their day," said Hirsch, whose previous film profiled his godfather, the Holocaust survivor. "Coming out of the Jewish history of oppression, I feel we have the responsibility to stand up and make the world a better place. In 'Amandla!' I wanted to show the power of music to affect this kind of social and political change."

Hirsch has been preoccupied with anti-apartheid music since successfully lobbying his Vermont boarding school to divest its South African holdings in the 1980s.

"I'd watch a news broadcast about unrest in a township and realize that people were singing, because I could hear it under the newscaster's voice," he said. "I started becoming obsessed with the music, and I vowed to learn more."

Easier said than done. No studies or books existed on the songs, which were largely undocumented. And the white, Jewish filmmaker didn't know any of the black activists or performers. His first break came when he called one of his telephone contacts two days after arriving in Johannesburg and reached a Zulu family whose son was prominent in the MK, the military wing of the African National Congress. Before long, he was tagging along to underground meetings in the townships, which he describes as "row after row of unpaved streets and garbage burning in overstuffed receptacles."

"Suddenly, I was in the middle of things," he said.

By the mid-1990s, Hirsch had partnered with "Amandla!" producer Sherry Simpson, an African American TV music producer based in Los Angeles, and had relocated to Johannesburg to develop the film. Over the next five years, he criss-crossed the country with his video camera, filling 12 notebooks with research and persuading activists to appear in his film.

Parliament member Thandi Modise described how she sang to comfort herself when her water broke during a prison beating and she was dumped in her dank cell to give birth. An ex-death row warden stood in the former "hanging room" at Pretoria Central Prison and recalled leading shackled activists to the gallows (they sang, too).

At a 1995 rally, Hirsch filmed a beaming President Nelson Mandela dancing to a victory song before the country's first democratic elections. 

He believes he was granted the access because he was an eager American, not a white South African; it didn't hurt that he was Jewish. "It's well known that most of the white anti-apartheid activists were Jews," he said by telephone from his publicist's office in Manhattan. "These people were loved by the black community as if they were black, as if they were one of their own."

For two years, Hirsch lived in the guest bedroom of one such activist, Dr. Paul Davis, a "struggle doctor" who cared for detainees when they were released from prison. Hirsch grew to love the multicultural Shabbat dinners Paul held with his wife, Allison Russell, a chief physician at the largest black hospital in South Africa. "They were a tremendous inspiration to me," Hirsch said of the couple. "We talked a lot about tikkun olam and what our responsibilities are to the world as Jews."

Ten years after Hirsch set off on that empty flight for Johannesburg, he still considers directing socially-conscious films to be one of those responsibilities. "I want to make movies that fuse my activism with a larger audience," he said.

"Amandla!" opens Feb. 28 at Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and in March in Orange County. 

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