Amandla! A Revolution

In the ’80s, as Americans were learning about—and, in some cases, acting against—South African apartheid, Paul Simon had a major hit with Graceland, an album rooted in the music of Soweto and other segregated townships. Lee Hirsch couldn’t care less. His documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony doesn’t waste a breath on Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or the rest of the cast of The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, the 1986 sampler for people who wanted more mbaqanga than Simon offered. If it didn’t overthrow the South African government, Hirsch doesn’t want to hear it.

Amandla! is Xhosa for “power,” and that’s the film’s interest: how control was transferred from the white South African oligarchy to the representatives—many of them previously exiled or imprisoned—of the black majority. Music played a crucial role in this revolution, by sending the message of liberation, inspiring activists and protesters, and intimidating the agents of apartheid. The last function culminated in the toyi-toyi, a high-stepping dance that unnerved the country’s riot cops, as their former boss admits to Hirsch’s camera while grilling meat at an outdoor barbecue with some ex-colleagues. Long before apartheid’s final decade, however, music threatened the white regime. Indeed, the film opens with the exhumation of protest-song-writer Vuyisile Mini, to whom the government paid the ultimate accolade: In 1964, it hanged him. (Officially, Mini was charged with sabotage and complicity in the murder of a police informer, though not the murder itself. Given the state of South African justice at the time, the substance of the charges is dubious at best.)

Using archival footage, the director begins his story in 1948, the year the Afrikaner-dominated government decided that South Africa would thwart the post-World War II upsurge in black African nationalism. Thus began apartheid, a system that became only more rigid and brutal in succeeding years. As their urban neighborhoods were destroyed, blacks were forced into so-called townships, which were mocked in a seemingly jaunty tune of the era, “Meadowlands.” Mine workers and other laborers were separated from their families, and a system of passbooks made travel more difficult (and many simple errands illegal). After government troops killed 69 people at Sharpeville in 1960, the African National Congress formed a military wing, and many prominent black South Africans left the country. Among them were pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and singer Miriam Makeba, who are among the film’s most-heard voices. (It’s Ibrahim who provides the documentary’s subtitle.)

Anti-apartheid activists who stayed behind were often imprisoned and tortured. Although certainly not a complete account of the horrors of apartheid-era South African prisons, Amandla! does allow former inmates to tell some harrowing stories. (One pregnant prisoner, considering suicide, decided to sing instead.) The film also talks to their adversaries, including Pretoria Prison’s hangman, who says he enjoyed the power of his job. Authority eventually shifted to the country’s majority, however: In 1994, 30 years after Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, he was elected president. The triumph, naturally, was celebrated with music. Four years later, Mini was reburied with full honors, a once-unthinkable event that neatly frames Amandla!’s narrative.

Hirsch is an American who first traveled to South Africa a decade ago, drawn by the anti-apartheid movement and its songs. While there, he made some music videos, and Amandla! includes frequent cuts and flashy handheld camera swoops familiar from the golden age of MTV. The resulting film may be too fast-paced for viewers who never paid much attention to apartheid or South African music, and it downplays indigenous musical styles that aren’t oriented primarily toward percussion and massed voices. For those who can fill in the blanks in their heads, however, Amandla! is a tightly interwoven and fittingly urgent celebration of the movement and music that freed a nation.

The Dogma “vow of chastity” promulgated by Danish bad-boy director Lars von Trier merely requires filmmakers to forgo many Hollywood-style technical and narrative conventions. To judge by such results as The Idiots, Mifune, and Kira’s Reason, however, you might assume that the pledge also stipulates characters who are depraved, deranged, or mentally challenged—or at least pretending to one of those states. Susanne Bier’s Dogma-certified Open Hearts demonstrates otherwise, observing people who are even more ordinary than the characters in last year’s Italian for Beginners, the only slightly morbid romantic comedy that was the first Dogma movie directed by a woman.

If Italian for Beginners, with its depressed Scandinavian priests, began like a burlesque of a Bergman loss-of-faith drama, Open Hearts is a less lacerating update on Bergman’s adultery tragedies. Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen (who scripted from the director’s story idea) quickly establish two Copenhagen couples: Bistro cook Cecilie (Sonja Richter) and grad student Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are a young, just-engaged couple; doctor Niels (Mads Mikkelson) and housewife Marie (Paprika Steen) share three children and an amiable but seemingly passionless marriage. A deus-less machina brings the two sets of mates together: Giddy from goodbye kisses, Joachim steps from Cecilie’s car and into the path of Marie’s. When he wakes up, he’s paralyzed, and Cecilie is in shock. So is Stine (Stine Bjerregaard), Niels and Marie’s teenaged daughter, who was in the car with her mother.

Because Niels works at the hospital where Joachim is being treated, guilt-wracked Marie asks him to comfort Cecilie. Meanwhile, the bitter, self-pitying Joachim continually rebuffs Cecilie, and she soon becomes close to Niels. They begin an affair, which sulky Stine is the first to suspect. Eventually, Niels is willing to risk his marriage to be with Cecilie, who is younger, prettier, and more vivacious than his wife. As in von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, however, the quadriplegic still has great power over the woman who was committed to him.

If not all these characters behave like adults, Open Hearts is more grown-up than most recent Hollywood treatments of similar circumstances. Paralyzed Joachim is credibly distraught and obnoxious, and weak-willed Niels is believably ambivalent and not without virtue: He’s a good father, if not such a great husband. Stine, a surly teen who resents her father but doesn’t want him to leave, is also an entirely convincing character. Still, the plot does share one unpersuasive detail with mainstream U.S. melodramas: It posits a situation in which a few people thrown together by catastrophe can rely on no one but each other. Cecilie apparently doesn’t have a single friend, so she’s forced to turn to Niels as her only source of comfort.

Of course, the films of von Trier and his followers usually look as if they’re depicting a tight little world, thanks to the reliance on handheld camerawork so intimate that it almost nuzzles its subjects. Bier follows this and other rough-edged Dogma strategies to cut through the soapiness of her scenario, although she does flout one directive by scoring some contemplative moments to ballads by Indonesian pop singer Anggun. (Music not recorded live during the filming is forbidden by von Trier’s rule book.) More important, Bier also shows a sense of humor about Open Hearts’ stylistic straitjacket: She renders its occasional fantasy sequences in an even dimmer and grainier mode than the rest of the movie. CP