Wonderfully archived, and told with a remarkable sense of intimacy, visual style, and musical panache, Susanne Rostock’s inspiring biographical documentary, Sing Your Song, surveys the life and times of singer/actor/activist Harry Belafonte. From his rise to fame as a singer, inspired by Paul Robeson, and his experiences touring a segregated country, to his provocative crossover into Hollywood, Belafonte’s groundbreaking career personifies the American civil rights movement and impacted many other social-justice movements. Rostock reveals Belafonte as a tenacious hands-on activist, who worked intimately with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., mobilized celebrities for social justice, participated in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and took action to counter gang violence, prisons, and the incarceration of youth.
Because of his beliefs, Belafonte drew unwarranted invasions by the FBI into both his personal life and career, which led to years of struggle. But an indomitable sense of optimism motivates his path even today as he continues to ask, at 82, “What do we do now?” His example may very well inspire you to action. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Institute]
“Sing Your Song”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Susanne Rostock
Producer: Michael Cohl, Gina Belafonte, Jim Brown, William Eigen, Julius R. Nasso
Editor: Susanne Rostock, Jason L. Pollard
Consultant: Karol Martesko-Fenster
Coproducer: Sage Scully
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Responses courtesy of “Sing Your Song” director Susanne Rostock.”
An introduction to filmmaking through Margaret Mead…
I was sitting in a cavernous auditorium at Columbia University, an anthropology major pen in hand, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a legend. In walked Margaret Mead carrying a tall staff made from a tree limb. She welcomed us to her class on ethnographic filmmaking, turned off the lights, turned on the projector and so began my love of the power and magic of film. Over the course of many months Margaret Mead showed us films about birth and death and everything in between in the cultures of Samoa, Bali, Papua New Guinea, among others. She said that these films were made “to cherish the life of the world.” Her words fueled my passion.
An impact on young viewers…
A few years ago Harry Belafonte recognized, in his own words, “that immortality was non-negotiable … and I began to examine my own quality of the journey … we are looking at the world at the brink of the most dangerous crossroads in history and I wondered where we went wrong.” Harry Belafonte felt that a film examining his life might help him to find the answer to this question. Concurrently Gina Belafonte, Harry’s youngest child, wanted to preserve her father’s inspiring legacy and she became one of the producers of the film. Michael Cohl went into partnership with Harry Belafonte to create this film, and I was brought in as a result of my past work with Michael Cohl. Needless to say I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to help tell this remarkable story. When I was fifteen years old I begged my parents to let me march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King. I now have a fifteen-year-old daughter who has my same desire and courage to change the world but who is guiding her? I felt the role Harry Belafonte played in the many struggles for human rights throughout 20th/21st century history could have a profound, inspiring effect on the viewer – especially the young.
A conversational approach to storytelling…
I envisioned Mr. Belafonte as being the teller of his own tale. Through his ponderings, insights and anecdotes supported by a cast of amazing characters, Mr. Belafonte’s life would be revealed as if we were privy to his own personal journals. In addition to filmed interviews that had been conducted over time, I made audio recordings of the very personal conversations Harry and I would have sitting in my cutting room. These informal talks became the thread for the storytelling.
I felt strongly that this film should not just be just the fact of history but the feel of history. In order to achieve the effect of being inside this story I knew I had to find archival footage to enhance Harry’s reflections. Many of the images we needed were not in the traditional archival houses. With the help of a wonderful archival researcher, Helen Weiss, we dug deep into every aspect of Harry’s experience. Footage was tracked down all over the world and from many forgotten resources hidden in attics and warehouses. Home movies were uncovered. We were relentless in our search ever hopeful that we would find every image needed.
Taking all the roles into account…
A film about the life of Harry Belafonte – singer, actor, humanitarian, activist – was a huge undertaking. The biggest challenge was how much story to tell and how to keep the film from lapsing into hagiography. Each chapter of his life could easily be a full-length feature. Mini series cropped up many times, but the decision made was to create a feature length documentary that would encompass this enormously complex life story full of intrigue, pain, joy and the power of art to change the world.
Motivating people into action…
During one of our late afternoon chats over tea and oatmeal cookies, Harry’s eyes filled with tears. He took my hand and said that what makes him so sad is that he feels he hasn’t successfully “passed the baton” to the next generation. His hope is that “Sing Your Song” will begin to motivate people to action.
Inspiration from the Left Bank…
There are two films that guided me in the shaping of Sing Your Song and they are both by Agnes Varda – “The Gleaners and I” and “The Beaches of Agnes.” These films are magical journeys into the life of Agnes Varda. They are extremely personal, imaginative explorations of a long life spent in art and activism. Varda’s stream of consciousness style and subjective use of imagery encouraged me to take a more experimental approach to storytelling.
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]