Sing Freedom; Lee Hirsch’s Powerful Paean “Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony””
by Erin Torneo
In 1992, a rusty-haired, impassioned 20-year-old named Lee Hirsch bought a plane ticket for South Africa. The self-described “white Jewish kid from Long Island” wanted to make a film. He stayed for 10 years, fascinated by the songs and the artists who formed the soundtrack to the turbulent antiapartheid struggle.
Serendipity and perseverance fueled the decade-long project. Hirsch met a U.S. music video executive named Sherry Simpson (his “angel”), who agreed to come aboard as a first-time producer. He crashed at activists’ houses, researching and documenting the songs that gave voice to those fighting for freedom. After its debut at the 2002 Sundance Festival, “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony” won the audience and freedom of expression awards there. “Amandla!” is a joyful testament to the power of persistence, not only for South Africans in the resistance movement, but also the filmmakers themselves. Artisan Entertainment releases the film today.
indieWIRE: This is a subject of monumental historical importance for anyone — let alone a first-time feature filmmaker. Were you ever worried in approaching this that you simply weren’t qualified?
Lee Hirsch: Of course. If you weigh in all of who I am and being in South Africa and talking to revolutionaries, who fought and buried their friends, and who had been tortured and imprisoned … I was constantly humbled. I felt an enormous burden of responsibility to the people who had trusted me to make this movie. It often felt like people were constantly like “Oh, he’s never going to get it together, but he’s sweet.” I had a lot of luck during my time in South Africa, but there was a certain point where it was like, “OK, this is it. Don’t fuck it up. You’ve got a really important story on your hands and you better not screw it up because we trusted you.”
Just before Sundance , we took the rough cut to South Africa and set up a screening for people who were in the film, along with activists and historians. And I said what I just said to you: “I need to know if I’ve done my job. If you are proud for me to take this film forward and premiere it at Sundance and represent.” Sherry [Simpson] and I made a decision that if the answer was no then we were going to withdraw it from Sundance and keep working on it. It was two weeks away from Sundance and we still weren’t finished with the edit, and totally against the wire with this screening. But people loved it. They were singing through the screening.
iW: But what about the production value?
Hirsch: On a technical level, I was fairly comfortable. I had been directing music videos, and I knew the looks I wanted to go for, how I wanted to move the camera, work with imagery that was stylized, picking the DP who was going to do that. We knew we wanted to shoot with a Bolex and we took out sprockets, so the back wasn’t completely screwed in and light got in, so it was flare-y and shaky. But in terms of structure, that was really hard. We had great editors, and our final editor in the states, Johanna [Demetrakas], was just awesome. She really helped us to craft it.
iW: But you had only previously done a short. How did you get from that to the music videos?
Hirsch: Begging and luck. There was a point where I got trapped in South Africa, literally, because I just couldn’t afford to come home. I was just trying to survive. I was huge fan of Vusi [Mahlasela], the guitarist in the film. The state of music videos then was really bad. A lot of them were shot on video with half naked women dancing in front of a mine dump. There were some good ones — for white bands mostly, because that’s where the labels wanted to spend their money. So there was a real gap in the market. I did this video for Vusi with no money at all — really, if I made $300 or $400 at the end of a job, I was psyched. I started by shooting them on film, hiring commercial DPs. I think that was a really good learning curve for me. I did eight videos, and each time I got a little faster, a little smarter, a little less afraid. Prior to that, I worked as a PA in NY. I worked for a couple of weeks on Hal Hartley’s “Amateur.”
iW: How was that?
Hirsch: It was the worst gig I’ve ever had. Everyone says, “Intern. Be a P.A. You’ll really learn.” And it was like two weeks of parking three blocks from the camera.
iW: Are you going to continue your partnership with Sherry Simpson? And do you intend to stay in documentary?
Hirsch: Yeah, I think we’re both open and that if someone came to either of us with a feature that already had producers attached, I wouldn’t say “No, because I only work with Sherry as my Exec.” But I think we’re looking for projects together, to keep our company going. And I’m looking to get into the loop of music videos here, and do commercials to just try and get by. So I think we’ll work together, but we’ll also each be free to just take gigs. I think we’d both like to try narrative next. The last year of this project has been great, but over the 10 years, there were a lot of no’s and tears and heartbreaks — houses and apartments nearly being seized. Financially, it’s been very tough.
iW: And the funding came in piecemeal. How’s that for anxiety?
Hirsch: Totally. I mean, and we’d get funds, but no one would release them. HBO said they’d give us finishing funds, but not until we showed them we had the money to make the film. So it helped, but there were times when it seemed like we were there, but then it was like 3 years until we were really there. And Ford came in with three different grants. And so often stuff came in at the last minute — we’d have the room packed up because the next day we had to be out if we didn’t make a payment.
iW: “Buena Vista Social Club,” which Artisan also released, really introduced a new audience to Cuban music and created a kind of demand for it so that there were a lot of musicians performing here. Will any of the South African artists featured in “Amandla!” tour here?
Hirsch: God-willing. Vusi’s been coming out a little bit, and he’s been signed to [Dave Matthews’] ATO Records, so they’ll follow up “Amandla!” with an album in a few months.
iW: I also wanted to ask you about what you shot vs. archival footage. How much material are we talking about?
Hirsch: We shot over 200 hours and we found about 50 hours of archived. There was a sense that during the struggle, the footage was everybody’s because it was so urgent to get it out but now it’s different. Some stuff I couldn’t use because I just couldn’t find who shot it. A lot of what I got came from filmmakers I had gotten to know who shot it themselves, stuff from people’s basements. Some of it was even presented to me in clandestine ways. Some stuff came from the National Archives — they had this old secret propaganda vault. I really wanted that grainy 16mm look. I just found that when I put it up on the telecine it really came alive in ways that people hadn’t seen before because they were just sloppy transfers.
iW: What about what you shot?
Hirsch: We shot with Digital Betacam for most of it, except for the interstitial stylized parts. We finished the film in PAL…We had a lot of really complicated post, but we went Laser Pacific in California and I can’t recommend them enough to filmmakers with difficult projects.
iW: Was it hard for you to leave South Africa?
Hirsch: Very, very, very hard. There was a part of me that thought I would stay there forever. I thought it was my home. But then you know, it took me all of a minute to adjust to life back here. [laughs]
iW: You mentioned that many of these songs were like oral history — the melodies existed but they were very malleable, the words would change. What is the legacy of this music that was part of the struggle and part of the resistance? Where do they live today?
Hirsch: They live in nostalgia. They come out late at night when people are drinking and there’s a break in the stereo. They live on in funerals. And they live on actively for those still struggling. The labor and trade unions, those on the streets. Those marching for drugs for people with HIV/AIDS.
iW: Do you suspect that the pervasiveness of commercial music, like hip hop, is going to take away from the value of music politically or culturally in South Africa?
Hirsch: I think a lot of young people there are happy to just chill and sing about money and cars and booty. I think that’s OK as long as there are artists of conscience. If anything, I think we need more of that here. But culture’s a funny thing. I shot a lot about the question you asked, because it was really important to me. I was sad that no one was singing these songs anymore. I was talking to a woman who was really high up in the government and said that. And she said, “What do you mean it sucks? You know how much of every meeting or conference was singing? Now we can just get down to business.”
iW: Do you consider yourself a political artist?
Hirsch: That’s a good question. Sure, but not solely. I consider myself a person of conscience. Someone who believes that film is a powerful tool for getting a message across. But I also don’t believe that for my whole life I’m obliged to do politically correct or conscious work. I’m extremely proud [of “Amandla!”] but I’m not opposed to doing something that isn’t politically motivated for my art to grow, and just to tell stories.