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Jennifer Merin

Review: Have You Heard From Jonannesburg at Film Forum

By April 15, 2010

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In case you haven't heard, Connie Field's comprehensive and galvanizing seven-film, eight and a half hour documentary series about the defeat of Apartheid in South Africa is finished and ready for viewing, and it is a must see for anyone who's interested in world politics and current affairs, and the art and process of documentary filmmaking. Collectively entitled Have You Heard From Johannesburg, the films each focus on a different aspect of how South Africa's violent and heinous system of racial intolerance and abuse was brought to an end by the collective efforts of thousands of men and women working on multiple global fronts. They are currently being premiered at NYC's Film Forum, where they will play in repertory until April 27.

Using archival footage -- much of which has not been seen before -- and interviews with a wide range of political leaders, journalists, economists, professors, football players and other activists who brought the well-established system to a halt, Have You Heard from Johannesburg both chronicles and analyses the events leading up to the fall of Apartheid.

The films need not be seen in order, but one through seven they are:

  • Road To Resistance: As the UN adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, South Africa implements Apartheid laws that racially segregate people in all aspects of life. The black majority, lead by the African National Congress (ANC) begins a campaign of civil disobedience, attracting supporters around the globe and seeding an international movement.
  • Hell Of A Job: ANC's Oliver Tambo escapes into exile and begins his 30-year journey to make the world aware of Apartheid, and develop global support to end the system by sanctioning and isolating the Apartheid regime. He accepts the Soviet Union's help to arm South African guerilla soldiers and is consequently seen by American and Western European leaders as an adversary in the Cold War. Tambo is championed, however, by Sweden's Olaf Palme and Bishop Trevor Huddleston, who brings support from the World Council of Churches. Tambo's worldwide crusade gathers strength.
  • The New Generation: Tambo's renewed appeal to the UN to sanction South Africa gains momentum and support following the brutal suppression of a peaceful youth demonstration in Soweto and the murder of Steve Biko. But South Africa's trading partners in the West block application of economic sanctions. Tambo goes to Zambia to meet up with ANC's growing guerilla army and bloody revolution seems to be inevitable. But the blood bath is prevented as civic leaders and members of the world wide anti-Apartheid movement pressure their governments to take stands against the injustice in South Africa.
  • Fair Play: Realizing that white South Africans are die hard sports fans, athletes and activists around the world moved to create a boycott of South Africa's athletes, moving to ban the country from the Olympics and from international rugby. World wide refusal to play or compete with South Africa's athletes had a huge political effect. (This, by the way, is the real back story for Invictus, Clint Eastwood's narrative feature.)
  • From Selma to Soweto: Covers the battle against Apartheid in the United States, where activists pushed universities, corporations and other affluent entities to pull their investments out of South Africa, and forced Congress to take a stand against the policies of President Ronald Regan to impose sanctions on South Africa. European sanctions follow.
  • The Bottom Line: Shows how for the first time ever an internationa grass roots campaign successfully brought economic pressure to help bring down a government. People of all ages, nationalities and professions join to prevent 'business as usual' with South Africa, bringing financial crisis to the Apartheid regime and making it clear that is days of domination were over.
  • Free At Last: Ultimately, all South Africans opposed to the Apartheid regime joined forces in the United Democratic Front (UDF). Faced with international isolation, the Apartheid regime tries to appease its opponents with piecemeal reforms. The UDF stages massive demonstrations of protest and the campaign to free Nelson Mandela takes on world wide momentum. The Apartheid regime is forced to negotiate with the ANC, ending a decades-long ban on the organization. Nelson Mandela is freed after 27 years in prison. Oliver Tambo returns to South Africa after 30 years in exile, but he dies one year before Nelson Mandela is elected the first black president of a democratic South Africa.

Have You Heard From Johannesburg is not only a fascinating history lesson, it's a primer about how to effect non-violent political and social change. The series doesn't suggest that South Africa has been transformed into a utopia, but it is certainly supportive of civil rights and the democratic process. And, as news reports and documentaries like Stolen, for one, indicate that slavery, human trafficking and other forms of human segregation, exploitation and abuse prevail around the world, Have You Heard About Johannesburg shines as a beacon of hope for activists world wide who are working for just causes.


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