An Interview with Lee Hirsch
Documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch made an inspiring debut with Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. His powerful film combines unseen period footage with interviews of major South African musicians to document the role of music in the fifty-year anti-apartheid struggle.
I met up with Hirsch at a spartan coffee house in Covent Garden to discuss the film’s DVD release and the worldwide reaction to his documentary, which has collected over twenty awards on the festival circuit, including most recently the humanitarian Index Freedom of Expression Award for Film.
I asked Hirsch about his background, and what inspired him to make this film. He replied, “I was an anti-Apartheid activist in New York and Vermont. I did a lot of work with Native Americans as well but I sort of cut my teeth as an anti apartheid activist. My initial aim was really very simple -- I wanted to make a film about the power of song, and I really didn’t know anything about it; I just thought, ‘That’s a movie, that’s gotta be a movie!’”
The film became a ten-year labour of love, with Hirsch moving to South Africa permanently and building relationships with the key musicians and activists that would form the bulk of the film. I mentioned that ten years seems an astonishing amount of time to spend on any film, and particularly a debut. “The reason why it took so long was probably ninety per cent because we just struggled to raise the money; people didn’t want to put money behind a first time filmmaker doing a radical film," he explained. "I would shoot a little bit, raise a little bit of money, and I also directed music videos along the way so I didn’t go crazy.”
Although the music videos helped Hirsch establish himself as a filmmaker and impress his credentials on his interviewees, there was continual resistance from potential investors: “We had funders on board that pulled out at the last minute, and the reason why they did was they said ‘Lee Hirsch cannot direct this movie; we need to get a seasoned BBC director to come in.’ I think that that would have been the biggest mistake, because what I brought to the film was who I was and the relationships that I’d been developing.”
These relationships seem to be central to the film’s moving, intimate interviews: ”A lot of the people in the movie look comfortable because they’re really my friends. There’s a whole scene that was shot in my apartment, when all the young people are arguing, and that scene came about because I’d had drunken nights like that before with my friends.”
Such an informal approach is unusual in a study of this kind, but Hirsch eschews the input of experts and musicologists. I asked him why: “I interviewed one musicologist but then I threw it away. I didn’t think we needed it, as the people spoke so beautifully. Besides, I think experts is a real Western concept, almost a racist concept in a way; this idea that you need to have an expert to back up what the natives are saying.The the film is actually full of experts: Hugh Masekela, for example, is a musicologist to all intents and purposes, he’s just not an academic.”
The film tells two parallel stories; the development of protest songs during Apartheid, and the history of South Africa during this period. According to Hirsch, the documentary is basically about "a journey to understand and celebrate the power of song and it’s potential for creating change." He describes it as a journey through a very loose chronology of the struggle for freedom in South Africa. "It uses music as the way to tell that story so that as you see the evolution of music you also see the evolution of the struggle. It’s also just about these amazing musicians and activists whose lives all unite and connect through this act of song. I think it’s a celebration.”
One of the film’s most powerful moments occurs when Hirsch meets some former South African riot police, who candidly explain how intimidated they were by the songs and the warlike Toyi-Toyi dance that accompanied them. This sequence came about almost by accident, while Hirsch was trying to get hold of the police’s archive crowd footage, “I didn’t end up getting that footage -- but in the end of the afternoon they had a barbecue so we just got lucky with the day, there was a lot of booze which helped.”
Amandla! shows a number of interviewees struggling with the same question: how far did the songs fuel the anti-apartheid struggle, rather than vice versa? I put this to Hirsch, whose laugh suggested it wasn’t the first time he’d heard the question: “It’s such a chicken and egg issue. I think that the struggle gave birth to that specific type of song, songs of resistance, but I think at a certain point it probably switched, that the songs were bringing whole new groups of people into the struggle.”
The politics of the struggle are largely omitted from the film, although there are moments that hint at the conflict within the resistance groups, and particularly the ANC, as factions increasingly moved from peaceful protest to sabotage. Lee explained that the film’s natural focus on music precluded a more detailed investigation: “I think that the armed struggle was a part of it only in so much as there was song was connected to it. If you ask me what I think personally, I’d say that the way the armed struggle was conducted was pretty honourable. You know, considering what they were facing, I don’t think the ANC was every a really bloodthirsty organisation.”
Amandla! is an astonishing debut film -- a moving and inspiring insight into the spirit of the South African people throughout their struggle. It also represents the work of a passionate, sincere filmmaker.