Sunday, April 18, 2010

Don't believe The New York Times review: HAVE YOU HEARD FROM JOHANNESBURG

The monumental and encompassing new documentary that opened this past week -- one that rivals The Sorrow and the Pity, Shoah and Hotel Terminus in its depth and breadth (but has nothing to do with the Jewish holocaust) -- just got dissed and dismissed last Wednesday in a review by Mike Hale in The New York Times. While TrustMovies has agreed with Mr. Hale in the past and will certainly do so again, he cannot let pass what he considers a troubling opinion that counters the facts in certain regards.

I have just now finished the penultimate episode (the sixth of seven) of HAVE YOU HEARD FROM JOHANNESBURG, produced and directed by Connie Field, shown below). My original post, on the first four sections can be found here). Instead of deciding, as did Mr. Hale, that "there are repetitions large and small... which cover the same time period from slightly different angles (and) feel redundant," for me, one of the great strengths of the film is this very repetition of time periods, during which we learn quite different aspects of the fight against apartheid -- presented so well that there can be no real accusation of repetition. (Nor of the "average-to-mediocre television" level that Hale judges the work.)

Does the boycott of the South Africa Rubgy team repeat the oil embargo, for instance, or the student protests regarding "divestment" that riddled U.S. universities repeat the British boycott of food products from South Africa?  Or does the manner in which Barclay Bank handled its South Africa connection repeat the way Polaroid and Shell Oil handled theirs?  I don't think so.  Nor, I suspect, will you.

Most telling of all, perhaps, is the comparison of Ronald Reagan's "Constructive engagement with South Africa" to Leon Sullivan's (the first Black man to sit on the board of General Motors) set of principles to make the South African workplace better for Blacks.  You really can't compare, of course -- unless you've seen all of Ms Field's seven films.  By then, you'll realize just how little repetition there has been.  Episode 5 from Part 2, for instance, deals specifically with the African-American response to Apartheid and demonstrates, as well as anything I have seen, how local governments, a half a world away, were able to effect important and lasting changes on what seemed like an impossible situation.

This episode may also make you nostalgic for a time in America when Republican elected officials had the balls to actually vote against their party and its then-leader Ronald Reagan, who was firmly committed to supporting South Africa's Apartheid regime.  Field shows us the meeting between Bishop Desmond Tutu and Reagan, with our President explaining why we must continue to support South African because that country supported us during World War II. "Your history is faulty, Mr. President," Tutu corrects him. "Most of these people supported the Nazis."  But then Reagan, much like Republicans of today, seldom allowed facts to stand in the way of  his version of the "truth."

In the sixth and so far the best of the episodes (each one has seemed better than its predecessor, which probably only demonstrates Ms Field's keen organizational sense), we see how South Africa's business community at last had to rally against an intractable government in order to survive.  This is fascinating stuff, made only better by gem-like moments such as the interview with one businessman who recalls the first meeting between his business community and the African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo (shown below, center).  We businessmen, he explains, had heretofore only viewed Tambo and his group as "terrorists pawns of the Communist Russia."  And now, here we are sitting down to lunch?   And then Tambo makes a quip about how the seating arrangements rather aped apartheid.  Everyone breaks into laughter, the participants mingle and -- can it be? -- the beginning of some real change is afoot.

In another priceless moment -- during the embargo of oil to South Africa which began in 1979 and sent gas prices sky-rocketing -- a white South African housewife bemoans the exorbitant cost of petrol: "This is worse than when Tutu won the Peace Prize!"  So full of precise details and terrifically informative (not to mention surprising, moving and funny) interviews is each individual segment, that seeing one episode simply gears you up for the next.  Perhaps Mr. Hale's problem was sitting through the entire 8-1/2 hours without lunch or dinner? Which does bring up a possible caveat: How to manage the full set of three separate programs (together with separate admission prices) that make up this seven-part, 8-1/2 hours worth of film?

I would suggest viewing each of the three sections on a different day, if possible.  This will give you some time to mull over what you've seen, and the day between each screening will rest and freshen you for the next segment, with your brain ready to start making those many connections that each new episode is likely to set in motion.  (You can view the entire program with dates and times of the Film Forum screenings here.)  As a critic, I was lucky enough to receive a set of screeners, which I could pop into my DVD player, at approximately the rate of one per day (or every other) for a week and a half.  (The final episode did not include a finished sound track and final editing, I am told, because Ms Field was expected to show up just prior to the Film Forum opening with the finally-finished last section in hand.)  This episode-by-episode approach may be the very best way to see the groundbreaking documentary, but for most audiences, that will not happen until a DVD set is released commercially -- and for now, there is no assurance of this.  So head to Film Forum if you really want to view this masterwork.

Once I've seen that final section in finished form, I will probably make time for a wrap-up on this one-of-a-kind documentary.  There's so much to say here that I have barely scratched the surface.  Which is unfair to Ms Field and her film: a work that probes and probes until we finally understand the big picture via the accumulation of the minute details of the small one.  This is a task I would have imagined unfathomable until this filmmaker, with her genius for organization, put it all together and showed us the way.

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