Film Festivals


By • May 4th, 2004 •

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Ten Years of Freedom. Ten years of democracy. Ten years of expression. This is what South Africa represents. After 50 years of Apartheid, a harsh, tyrannical, immensely racist and segregationist government, South Africans won their liberation and the inalienable right to a democratic voice in government. Now, ten years after the first democratic election, South Africans rejoice in their new freedom and celebrate through the Ten Years of Freedom Film Festival in New York City.

The festival, which took place from April 27 through May 2, 2004, celebrates this young democracy through documentary and fictional films about life in South Africa. Tuesday night, April 27, the first night of the festival, was devoted to documentaries about music including Karoo Kitaar Blues and The Lion’s Trail, followed by a discussion with the latter film’s director, Francois Verster.

As Verster stated, The Lion’s Train is fundamentally about “how one particular African product has been…abused in the West.” This one “particular product” was the song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, made famous by such names as George Weiss and The Tokens in the 1960s. One of the most well known songs of the last century, it reached number one 14 times. The film discussed the true South African origins of the song, which was first recorded in 1939, and how American record companies altered it and lied about it to make it one of the most well known songs in recent history without giving its true creator, Solomon Linda, an equal share of the profits. The expository documentary contrasted life in the United States with life in South Africa through the highly evocative portrayal of the story of the song. It clearly stated that while music in South Africa inspires unity, nationalism, praise, change, and broken barriers, music in the United States, especially music imported from other cultures, is manipulated, stolen, and changed, completely legally. The film aggressively opposed the American music industry’s morals and tactics, and in that sense it was clearly unbalanced.

The exquisite South African landscape overcompensated for the lack of any cinematic special effects; however, because of the perpetual violations of chronology, it was difficult to keep up with the story. The use of current interviews juxtaposed with flashbacks kept the audience engaged and eager to know more in order to put together all the pieces of the corrupt and mysterious puzzle. The live performance of the piece after the film by South African musicians was tasteful and commemorative, a pleasant surprise. The film brought to life, as Pete Seeger put it, the “worldwide problem” of stealing art from other cultures and manipulating it without paying due respect to its creators. The film craftily revealed the negative and, in Linda’s case, deadly consequences of this thievery, as well as its fervent statement: this must stop.

Karoo Kitaar Blues was a more light-hearted piece. A Karoo is a semi desert region in South Africa whose musical tradition has survived through generations among generations. The documentary was presented from the “I” perspective and told the story of a group of people traveling to find the perfect mixture of sounds and cultures for a concert entitled Karoo Kitaar Blues. Though the premise of the movie was simple, it was effective in portraying the joy experienced through music in the midst of extreme poverty. Jump cutting from one musician to another was an effective means of showing the “auditions” without ever boring the audience. It was interesting to watch how the music in different regions was drastically diverse and, as the film stated, it is “extraordinary how innovative these musicians are.” Making instruments from tin cans, spoons, string, and other domestic items, the music produced by the South Africans in the Karoos is truly unique. The scenery in the poverty-stricken Karoos is incredible and the film captured this trademark of South Africa.

The music in the film is more than just a way for South Africans to unite with their ancestors. In an area where death is encountered every day, it brings joy in times of suffering and it “captures hardships of time in this land.” The music in the individual Karoos involves the entire culture, regardless of age or sex. The film was heart-warming and it was edifying to see how so many cultures in South Africa overcome adversity through music. The film made the audience cheer, cry, and smile.

Stars mean many different things to many different people. Whether ancestors long gone, a prehistoric navigational system, a religious symbol, or merely an explosion of gas, it is undeniable that the stars, especially the stars visible in South Africa, are full of wonder, curiosity, and immense pulchritude. These stars are especially poignant to Thebe Medupe, one of South Africa’s first astronomers. Cosmic Africa follows Medupe on a journey that takes him to the origins of astronomy, through the history and evolution of the meaning of the stars to his people. The journey, not only the physical journey but the mental journey of discovery as well, allows Medupe to reflect on his peoples’ past and gives him, and the audience, a new appreciation for astronomy in South Africa.

Although Medupe is called one of South Africa’s first astronomers, Medupe says we are “misinformed to believe our ancestors were not interested in astronomy.” In fact, it is quite the opposite. Back when motor powered vehicles, watches, and calendars (as we know them today) were not even a conceived notion, South Africans used the stars and the lunar cycle as guidelines for the planting and harvesting seasons. Ancient tribes considered the moon and stars to be like a person, each with their own personalities and character traits. The stars were also able to predict the amount of rain in the coming season. Through interviews, images, and dialogue between the people of Namibia, Mali, and the Sahara, it is clear that the stars are more than beautiful objects in the sky; they link cultures to their pasts and they represent the difference between survival of the culture and complete destruction. The journey through South Africa and the different ancient tribes enlightens the audience as well as weaving a story of how the stars shaped the way people lived and continue to live on earth. Although Medupe believed “science removed me from my heritage,” the film proves that if you dig up the past, you are bound to find links and connections to peoples and places you never imagined.

The film was started in 1998 with the hopes of making a documentary “about how Africans related to the sky.” Six years later, it has won the award for Best Documentary produced in South Africa. The aim of the film was to “fill in the gap about how the history of astronomy was introduced to the world.” This goal was accomplished with flying colors. The film concentrated not only on the astronomical aspect, but also the cultural aspect of South Africa’s history, which was crucial to understanding the true importance of astronomy to the early South African people. The film, which was directed by Craig and Damon Foster, perfectly captured how necessary it is “to understand the earth in order to understand the sky.”

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