Connie Field, Have You Heard from Johannesburg, 2010, black-and-white and color film, 517 minutes. Left: Members of the Leandra Youth Congress regroup after repelling an attack by vigilantes at the funeral of their community leader, Chief Ampie Mayisa, in Leandra Township, Transvaal on January 25, 1986. Photo: Paul Weinberg / Mayibuye Centre Archives. Right: Oliver Tambo with Nelson Mandela in Addis Ababa in 1962. Photo: © IDAF.
IF ANY ONE WORD could describe this epic documentary about the struggle against apartheid in the latter part of the last century, that word is exhilarating. More compelling and instructive than any fictionalized movies on the subject, the seven-part, eight-and-a-half-hour Have You Heard from Johannesburg (2010) is charged by the impassioned, clear-eyed approach of its producer/director Connie Field and energized by a cast of characters, whose names, but for one or two, are no doubt unknown to most Americans, including those who lived through the period—the 1960s through the ’90s—when the majority of the events chronicled occurred.
Field’s work is an ambitious attempt to convey the increasing international awareness of the violence, humiliations, murders, exiles, and imprisonments practiced by the Pretoria regime, which answered the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late ’40s with its own racial segregation policy, and, under Pieter (P. W.) Botha, sustained it arrogantly and stubbornly even when that policy had become both blatantly embarrassing and economically suicidal. Field focuses not only on the ethical issues but on the economic, social, political, cultural, and religious pressures that finally led to the rescinding of apartheid policies (by Botha’s successor, Frederik [F. W.] de Klerk) and the release of four key figures from their twenty-seven-year imprisonment. By that point, in 1990, the most notable of the incarcerated, Nelson Mandela, had become a household name worldwide. Understandably, he bookends Field’s project: Part One opens with his release, then backtracks to the events that occurred during his imprisonment; Part Seven reprises that release, which is given greater meaning through the scale and depth of what has intervened. But if Mandela’s symbolic status is unquestioned, the figure who stands out as the blood, guts, and mind of the movement (and as the political savvy behind the African National Congress) is Oliver Tambo. Shown in rare interview footage, he emerges as a dynamic leader of impressive intellect and courage, exiled to England and unceasing in his devotion to the cause.
The film incorporates miles of newsreels along with material from television and elsewhere. The first three parts trace the origins of the apartheid policy, the parameters of the fight, and the establishment and outlawing of the African National Congress. The next three focus on different strands of international pressure, and the last on the wearing down, near economic collapse, and ultimate concession of the regime. Some parts seem self-contained. Part Four, “Fair Play,” concentrates on international efforts to prevent the nation’s rugby team, the pride of white South Africa, from playing in matches abroad. Part Five, “From Selma to Soweto,” recounts protests in the ’80s at universities across America, led by Columbia, demanding that the institutions’ divest from South Africa, and leading ultimately to the vote by both houses of Congress to override Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions. Both episodes in the film demonstrate Field’s talent for weaving an extraordinarily complex tapestry of historical events and international personages into a dramatic structure, complete with climax and catharsis.
But Field is no sentimentalist. Her method is neither contrived nor unearned; it underlines that the long struggle consisted of separate battles in separate arenas, each reaching a turning point that gave impetus to the next. To see only one or two parts is to miss how implied victory is tempered by the fight as it continues elsewhere.
Field assembled an astounding number of impressive individuals to flesh out this story, from heroic members of the African National Congress to enlightened government and church figures of such countries as Sweden and the Netherlands; from the tireless Desmond Tutu to Barbara Castle, the fiery antiapartheid member of British Parliament. There is not a dull or inarticulate figure among these talking heads. Those driven by pragmatism prove that only when the power of the masses is matched by economic pressure—in this case the refusal, however begrudging, of banks and corporations to do business with a failing regime—is success possible. As Tony Bloom, board member of the Barclays Bank there, soberly puts it, “getting out of South Africa was the right business decision.”
One key figure remarks that had Reagan and Thatcher not been elected, it would have been impossible for Botha to maintain apartheid. Both leaders continued to evoke the specter of Communism to ostracize the ANC. So it is especially gratifying to see a clip of Secretary of State George Schultz, following his 1987 meeting with Oliver Tambo (demonized for years by Botha, Reagan, and Thatcher as a puppet of Moscow), telling the interviewer how charming, intelligent, and informed he found the man—not at all the Communist stereotype one had thought. Tambo, gravely ill at the time of Mandela’s release, finally returned to Africa after twenty-seven years of exile, only to die a year later, before his comrade was elected president. This film, placing him once more before a new generation of potential movers and shakers, is mandatory viewing.
Have You Heard from Johannesburg plays April 14–27 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
IN ITS APRIL CALENDAR NOTES, Anthology Film Archives describes Alain Tanner as “the man who put Swiss cinema on the international film cultural map.” While that may not seem like much of a distinction given the low profile of Swiss filmmaking, Tanner deserves attention for more than being the most recognizable director to hail from the land of cuckoo clocks and expensive watches. He’s also one of the great unsung radicals to emerge during that intense, now heavily romanticized period of cinematic politicization the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Indeed, the film with which Tanner is usually associated, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), was appropriately the earliest in the Walter Reade Theater’s “1968: An International Perspective” series three years ago to look back on the era with little rose-tinted nostalgia. More critical than didactic, in the film Tanner studies the ripple effects of Geneva’s May 1968 political tumult with a sympathy and severity that make it as forward-looking as it is reflective.
As with Jonah, most of Tanner’s heroes and antiheroes are social outcasts: The graying protagonist of his feature debut, Charles, Dead or Alive (1969), abandons the leadership role in his family’s longtime watch factory dynasty to join the growing dropout generation; the teenage antiheroines of Messidor (1979) jettison family, work, and school for a vagabond and criminal existence in the hauntingly desolate Swiss countryside; Bruno Ganz’s AWOL oil-tank worker comes ashore in Lisbon only to lose himself to a lack of structure and volition (In the White City ). Tanner’s languorous style—slow tracking shots, patient long takes—matches the mood and pace of his drifting characters, often to the point of discomfort. But Tanner’s is a cinema of the ill-at-ease, the ill-fitting: A journalist and a fiction writer both fail at creating a narrative out of a young woman’s transgressions in The Salamander (1971), while a local politician and his Italian mistress discover the limits of passion in The Middle of the World (1974). The dreamy and mellow Requiem (1998), the latest film in Anthology’s retrospective, seems to suggest that Tanner has accepted balance, though not by compromise or complacency. If one theme could be said to run through all Tanner’s films, it’s that freedom doesn’t equal irresponsibility; freedom must be earned.
Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010, still from a color film, 87 minutes. Image courtesy of Paranoid Pictures.
BORN OUT OF THE NEW YORK graffiti scene of the 1970s and ’80s, street art has come a long way since Revs and Cost were wheat-pasting their block-letter foolscap names in every nook and cranny of the city. Like its sibling rap music, it has gone massive. No one was more responsible for this mainstreaming than an elusive, anonymous Bristol native who goes by the tag Banksy, with a close second going to the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey, he of the Obama “HOPE” poster. Both are featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary about street artists that Banksy took over from its original auteur (and the real subject of the film), Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash.
A diminutive Frenchman who resembles a Mini-Me John Belushi with, as Banksy puts it in the film, “facial hair from the 1860s,” Guetta grew up with an obsessive need to videotape everything that happened around him. Nothing very exciting did, until he started following his cousin around Paris at night as the latter pasted and stenciled the titular creatures of the early video game Space Invaders anywhere he could. Invader, as his cousin called himself, gave Guetta a taste of the subversive thrill of illicit art, and the manic filmaholic had finally found his subject.
Through Invader’s underground connections, Guetta worked his way up through street-art royalty, including a period of following/filming Fairey (in his Andre the Giant “OBEY” phase), until he got an audience with Banksy, offering himself to the artist as a guide to the virgin walls and billboards of LA, Guetta’s adopted city. “Street art has a short life span,” says Banksy through an electronic voice distorter. “We wanted someone to document it, and Thierry was at the right place at the right time.”
After assisting and filming Banksy at work in LA, Guetta was invited by the artist to come to his studio in London and film his process there. Banksy’s studio hands, ever protective of their master’s secret identity, didn’t like the nosy, irrepressible Frenchman and his camera. Banksy disagreed: “He was cool, very human. The power of Thierry is the unlikeliness of him. He became a friend.” Inspired by his heroes, Guetta made a stencil of himself with a video camera and started bombing walls around LA. Around this time (2006), Banksy held his first big US show, “Barely Legal,” in an abandoned LA warehouse. Controversial for its (live) elephant in the room, the show was nevertheless a smash with Hollywood stars and wannabe hipsters alike.
Banksy had Guetta accompany him to Disneyland to document his placing of a blowup Gitmo detainee doll in view of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, which caused the park to shut down in panic. Changing clothes and riding rides, Banksy got away. Guetta didn’t, enduring a Cheney-era grilling from park security. “Thierry was seeing another side of the Magic Kingdom,” chuckles Banksy. Managing to stash his videotape of the event in his sock and erase his digital still camera in the presence of his captors, Guetta was eventually released for lack of evidence.
Banksy, Exit Through The Gift Shop, 2010. (Trailer)
This endeared him to Banksy even more, and the artist encouraged his sidekick to edit his endless hours of street-art video footage into a documentary about the subculture. Guetta obliged, apparently putting the hundreds of unmarked tapes through a digital Cuisinart, resulting in an unwatchably nonlinear, ultra-quick-cut image salad. “I started to think that Thierry wasn’t a filmmaker,” recalls Banksy, “but a guy with mental problems.” In order to take control of the film project, Banksy suggested that Guetta go back to LA and pursue his own art—a move he came to regret.
Assuming the identity of Mr. Brainwash, Guetta threw himself into street art with the same hyperactivity he brought to his camerawork, producing gazillions of highly derivative pieces that mash up Warhol, Banksy, Fairey, and almost every street and Pop artist who ever lived. Distinguished by their giant size and shameless stylistic thievery, Guetta’s works are emblematic of an initially inspired art movement planing out to the mediocrity of total saturation, something like the relationship between the Replacements and the Goo Goo Dolls. Undaunted by criticism, Guetta mounted a copycat abandoned warehouse show in the old CBS Studios building in Hollywood, hyped it heavily, and overnight became almost as famous as Banksy, selling over a million dollars’ worth of art in two weeks.
“Most artists take years to develop their style,” laments Banksy. “Thierry seemed to miss out on all those bits. There’s no one like Thierry, even though his art looks like everyone else’s.” Getting to the rub, Banksy continues, “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless. I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that anymore.”
For his part, Guetta comes off at the end of the film as a vindicated Salieri without rancor or envy. “A lot of people think I’m a rabbit,” Guetta says. “Time will tell if I’m a turtle or a rabbit.” In the turtle column: Guetta was commissioned by Madonna to do the cover of her 2009 greatest hits collection, Celebration; he opened his second big show in the Meatpacking District in New York on Valentine’s Day, 2010; and he’s the subject of a documentary released under the imprimatur of his own personal Mozart. Maybe he’s really a fox.
Exit Through the Gift Shop opens in select theaters on Friday, April 16.
SERGE BOZON’S SINGULAR, extraordinary La France (2007), which never received a proper theatrical release in the US but will be available on DVD from Kino this week, might be thought of as the structural inverse of Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In Demy’s 1964 musical, every word of dialogue is sung; within this audacious exercise lies an achingly antiwar film, its hero shipped off to fight in Algeria. Bozon’s film, similarly daring, unfolds as a drama about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I that intermittently (four times, to be specific) blooms into a delirious, anachronistic musical.
Liberty, equality, fraternity: Gaul’s motto is dissected throughout Bozon’s movie, which laments the folly of nationalism. The straightforward title of the film is echoed in the names of the songs themselves: “England,” “Italy,” “Germany,” and “Poland.” Each, with lyrics written by the director, begins with the line “I, the blind girl. . . ,” sung by weary soldiers who come to life with their handcrafted string instruments, made from tin cans and other everyday detritus. Gender discordance runs throughout, as Camille (Sylvie Testud), in search of her fighting husband, cuts her tresses and binds her breasts to join ten combatants led by a haggard lieutenant (Pascal Greggory), who, like Camille, also hides a secret. Testud and Greggory, two of the finest actors working today, convey the depth of their characters’ despair with precise gestures, usually a shrug or a downward gaze.
Yet the dolor isn’t constant: Camille beams with pure enchantment the first time her comrades break into song—creamy, harmonious ditties that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds and other mid-’60s pop manna. The aural magic of La France, combined with the magnificent cinematography of Céline Bozon (the director’s sister), who frequently films anxious wives and the roaming regiment at a distance, transports the viewer out of fixed notions of time and space. In its final scene, Bozon’s unforgettable war movie can no longer remain earthbound.
La France is available on DVD beginning April 6. For more details, click here.
THE NEW DOCUMENTARY The Sun Behind the Clouds (2009) crystallizes a question that increasingly besets the half-century-old Tibetan struggle for independence: Is a more militant brand of activism possible when the leader of your movement is also a universal symbol of peace? Officially adopted in the late 1980s, the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” calling not for total independence but instead for cultural and political autonomy, has made no headway with Beijing, and seems more than ever like a dead end to many younger Tibetans.
In The Sun Behind the Clouds—a companion piece to their 2005 fiction feature Dreaming Lhasa, about a Tibetan-American documentarian working among Tibetan exiles in northern India—filmmaking couple Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin focus on the tumultuous events of 2008, a charged year for Tibet-China relations, with protests breaking out in Lhasa and a global spotlight trained on China, which had pledged to improve its human rights record in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Using that spring’s large-scale march through India to Tibet as its backbone, the film recounts the uprising and crackdown within Tibet (with some surreptitiously shot footage) as well as the demonstrations from Free Tibet activists and counterdemonstrations from Chinese nationalists as the Olympic torch made its way around the world. The degree of access to the Dalai Lama, interviewed at length, might suggest an unquestioning hagiograpy, but the filmmakers are acutely aware—as is the Dalai Lama himself, it would seem—of his defining dilemma: the perhaps irreconcilable difficulty of being both a spiritual and a political leader.
At the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, The Sun Behind the Clouds suddenly became a diplomatic flash point when the Chinese authorities withdrew the most critically acclaimed Chinese film of 2009, Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, in response to the festival’s inclusion of Sonam and Sarin’s documentary. In a sly, nose-thumbing bit of metaprogramming, The Sun Behind the Clouds is playing as a late replacement at Film Forum for City of Life and Death, a chronicle of the atrocities carried out by Japanese troops at Nanjing in 1937, which was dropped from the program last month reportedly because of an unresolved deal between the producers and the American distributors.
City of Life and Death is the most high-profile of the films that have emerged around the seventieth anniversary of the massacre at Nanjing: The American documentary Nanking opened in 2007; the German-produced John Rabe, about the German businessman (a figure in City of Life and Death) who created a safety zone for civilians, is due in American theaters this spring. With his sober, harrowing, black-and-white war epic, Lu has given the Rape of Nanking, which the author Iris Chang termed “the forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” its own Schindler’s List (spiked with, in the clipped opening battle scenes, bits of Saving Private Ryan). Lu is a little less sentimental than Spielberg, and just about as accomplished a technician; while his movie induces some familiar unease around the representation of atrocity—the simplification of genocide and the fog of war to melodramatic plot points and stark moral conundrums—there is also a relative discretion and a haunting clarity to the filmmaking, especially in the largely wordless first act.
Lu, whose previous film was the Tibetan neo-Western Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, has stated that his goal is objectivity, which he sets out to accomplish mainly by making City of Life and Death an ensemble piece. The characters include a variety of heroic and not-so-heroic locals—a resistance fighter (Liu Ye), a teacher-turned-protector (Gao Yuanyuan), a traitor who redeems himself (Fan Wei)—as well as a Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is both perpetrator and, gradually, horrified witness. This is a clear break from previous Chinese films about Nanjing, which have insisted on the monolithic evil of the Japanese, but it can also be taken as a reflection of the shifting relationship between China and its increasingly important trade partner Japan. (City of Life and Death went through a painstaking, and by all accounts minimally invasive, approval and censorship process.) While there’s room for argument over whether the film’s attempts at balance are bold and responsible or cynical and schematic, some Chinese apparently find Lu’s approach nothing short of treasonous: He has received death threats from those enraged by what they consider an unduly sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese aggressors.
Political maneuvering has created an unfair association between City of Life and Death (which for now still has no US distributor) and The Sun Behind the Clouds, but there are some links worth pondering here: one film in which China is portrayed as a victimizer and another in which it is portrayed as a victim, both in their own way fuel for the ever-burning fire of Chinese nationalism.
The Sun Behind the Clouds plays March 31–April 13 at Film Forum in New York. The filmmakers will be present at several of the screenings. For more details, click here.
Anne Bass, Dancing Across Borders, 2009, color film, 88 minutes. Production stills. Left: Sokvannara “Sy” Sar at the International Ballet Competition in Varna. Right: Sokvannara “Sy” Sar performing at the International Ballet Competition in Varna. Photo: Stoyan Lefedzhiev
IN 2000, American dance patron and philanthropist Anne Bass spotted a Cambodian teenager perform in a classical Khmer dance recital in Angkor. Impressed by his grace and charisma, Bass spirited the kid—Sokvannara “Sy” Sar, then sixteen years old—to Manhattan to study at the School of American Ballet. Thus begins Dancing Across Borders (2009), Bass’s documentary about Sar’s arduous progress and uneasy assimilation into the role nominated for him: a ballet prodigy, modeled after Rudolf Nureyev’s unconventional rise. (Nureyev, too, began his ballet training in his late teens.)
Undeterred by frustrations during Sar's first SAB audition (he is judged too old, too untutored, and too monolingual), Bass engages Olga Kostritzky, the founder of the school’s boys’ division, for Sar’s private instruction. Three months later, he enrolls in the school and, after another six years, is promoted to the corps of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. In the interim, he struggles with his technique, with alienation and estrangement, and with an ambivalence toward his place in ballet—an ambivalence that is certainly his alone. He also turns out splendid performances, many of which feature in Dancing Across Borders—alongside interviews with such ballet notables as Jock Soto and Peter Boal, and sessions documenting his dazzling apprenticeship under Kostritzky, initially intended as video reports to Sar’s parents. These videos record the maturation of an astonishing gift as well as the theft of a youth’s sense of belonging. Midfilm, we follow Sar back to Cambodia, where he performs solos from Le Corsaire and “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” before a bewildered audience that includes his parents, to whom his talent is both unmistakable and incomprehensible. At such moments, Sar seems to embody the absolute subjection required by genius—even when the genius is actuated by someone else’s conviction. Yet if Dancing Across Borders is Bass’s dream, it remains Sar’s extraordinary movement, grace, and leap of faith.