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For many young filmmakers, making their first feature is a moral crusade. For Lee Hirsch, however, it was a moral crusade about a moral crusade: the campaign to end South African apartheid. Now, as Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony debuts in American cities and college towns, the 30-year-old filmmaker doesn’t seem to have entirely unwound. Earnest and fidgety, he sometimes bristles at questions about his film and his 11-year quest to complete it.

In a sense, Amandla! began some 15 years ago. Hirsch first became concerned about apartheid as a teenage student at the Putney School in Vermont. “I was kind of finding my way into being an activist and being conscious,” recalls the filmmaker, who’s dressed in shades of black save for a glimpse of white undershirt. “When you’re that age, you sort of have this sense that not all is well in the world. For me, one of the first things I learned about was South Africa. I remember, when I was 15, being incredibly moved by a movie, Cry Freedom. Now that I look back and try to explain the evolution of this in my life, I think that was probably influential.”

Hirsch got involved in a successful campaign to get his school to divest its South African investments. “To be effective at that, I had to learn so much,” he says. “The arguments against [divestment] were really strong. The more I learned, the more passionate I became. The more enraged I became about what people were going through there. And I kept encountering the music. It just really grabbed me.”

After high school, Hirsch attended Amherst, Mass.’s, Hampshire College and worked with the American Indian movement. “I was going down this political road,” he says, “but just after that, I decided I really wanted to be a filmmaker. I came to the conclusion that film was really the ideal way of meshing what I believe with trying to make a difference. And then I started searching for that big idea.”

The idea turned out to be documenting one of Hirsch’s longtime interests: South African anti-apartheid music. In 1992, Hirsch, who left Hampshire after a year and a half of classes, sold his car and headed to Johannesburg with $600 and no plan other than “to explore if there was anything to it, if people would talk to me. If that culture was still alive. People said, ‘Oh, you’re too late. They’re not singing anymore.’ So I had to see for myself.”

Politically, Hirsch remembers, the atmosphere in South Africa when he arrived was unsettled. “[African National Congress] soldiers had just come back into the country as one of the first negotiated steps forward….There were negotiations for the free elections that would come in ’94. It was tense. There was palpable uncertainty in the air. Which existed until ’94, until the day of

the elections, when everything went so beautifully.”

Despite the political volatility, Hirsch was received without suspicion. “I was young, I had this ponytail, I was this eager kid,” he says. “People were amazingly receptive to me. They talked to me, invited me to their homes, shared songs with me. I was really, really fortunate. But I’d also be out on the streets, singing with everybody and learning the songs. I was kind of a peculiar figure for people. I think they got a kick out of me more than anything else.”

After his first visit, which lasted three weeks, Hirsch says, “I didn’t know that I would make the film, but I knew I wanted to. I needed to explore if it was possible. So when I came back after that first trip, I had the full resolve that this was what I wanted to do.”

One of the director’s breakthroughs came when he met a young Zulu anti-apartheid activist, he says, “on the night that the ANC accepted victory. After the elections, we ended up sitting on a couch together, both fairly drunk, and celebrating the day that was. And we became friends from that point on.”

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Hirsch ended up living with the man’s parents, both physicians, for two years. “They decided to trust me and support my quest. So I got to meet people and go to rallies and events,” he recalls. “I had my little Hi-8 camera, and I just became totally behind the idea

after that.

“The father was a struggle doctor. He worked with detainees and people who were tortured, and went to the media and spoke as a doctor about what was happening to people. And his wife was the chief doctor at the largest black hospital in the Southern Hemisphere, in Soweto. They were just an extraordinary family that took care of me in lots of cases.”

Each of his subsequent trips to South Africa lasted longer, Hirsch says. “I’d never leave when I was supposed to leave.” At one point, the director was in Johannesburg for five years straight. “I couldn’t afford to go home,” he says. “I reached a point of OK, I’m stuck here. And I just started to envision myself as staying in South Africa forever.”

During that period, Hirsch did research, interviewing potential subjects for the film and shooting Hi-8 footage. “I was always shooting,” he says. “We have over 250 hours of footage. But the principal production was in the year 2000. That’s when we shot with a crew.”

Before beginning Amandla! in earnest, Hirsch also directed music videos, “which is how I survived. And there were times I was just sitting on my ass, like everyone else, waiting for a gig.”

At first, Hirsch says he “had only black friends. That was the circle I moved in. And then as I lived there and time went on, I developed friends across all lines. Most of my friends were young and progressive. I didn’t hang around with people who weren’t into what was happening in the country.”

Today, Hirsch is still unsympathetic toward South African musicians who didn’t have a strong political agenda, as well as European and American musicians who have used South African musical motifs, with or without an anti-apartheid message. Amandla! is “not their story,” he says testily. “The movie is a black South African story. It’s their music, and how it worked for them. The film has a large focus on nonartists—on activists and music that came up in the streets. The artists who are in the film are there because they’re conscious. They’d given their careers to making music that was part of the struggle.”

Hirsch cites pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and vocalist Miriam Makeba. “These are people who used their fame and their status to get a message out about what was happening in South Africa,” he says. “Their music was embraced on a huge level at home. People would risk going to jail for having their records.”

One Western musician who is in Hirsch’s good graces is South Africa-born Dave Matthews, whose ATO Records is releasing the film’s soundtrack. “We sent the rough cut to Dave just before Sundance,” he says. “I knew that he was a fan of [guitarist] Vusi Mahlasela, who’s in the film. Going on that information, we sent him a copy. Within two days, they called back and said, ‘Everyone here loves it. We want to do the soundtrack.’

“I love the album,” he adds. “It would be great if it takes off, like Buena Vista Social Club.”

Before ATO joined the team, Hirsch got much of the documentary’s $750,000 budget from the Ford Foundation and HBO, which will broadcast Amandla! after its theatrical run. He also received some money from the South African Broadcasting Corp., but he notes that filmmaking in South Africa is difficult. “The industry is based on shooting commercials,” he says. “It’s really hard to get an independent film financed. A lot of my friends there are filmmakers, young black directors, and it’s really a challenge. There are very few features made there. And it’s a pity, because there are all kinds of great storytellers, and the visuals are great.”

Hirsch attributes the industry’s conservatism to “a kind of self-doubt. Like, We have to get an American star to play the lead. We can’t rely on our own talent. No one will care. It’s crap. South African stories are amazing. And we’ve certainly seen that the world has embraced South African theater, so why wouldn’t it embrace South African film?”

Johannesburg, he adds, “has almost as many art-house movie screens as New York. It’s a really sophisticated movie market. But they rarely show African films. They’re, like, Miramax films and French films.”

One independent film will be showing in South Africa soon, though: Amandla!, which is scheduled to open there in May. Hirsch plans to attend the premiere.

“I’ve gone back every year since ’92,” he says. “I love it there. I would happily be there tomorrow.” —Mark Jenkins