In 1948, the President of South Africa, Hendrick Verweord, announced his plans for apartheid, which he shamefully described as "a policy of good neighbourliness". For the next 40 years the world turned a blind eye to this disgraceful segregation and its attendant murders.

Amandla! deals with a small part of this history, the role of music, using it to give a broad sketch of the various stages of apartheid and how traditional songs were used to fuel protest and lament the loss of a nation.

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The film opens with the exhumation of Vuyisile Mini, a man generally regarded as South Africa's finest songwriter, but who was given a pauper's burial after execution in 1964. By focussing on specific songs, such as Mini's Beware Verwoerd! (The Black Man Is Coming!), Amandla! tells the story of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Naturally, there are moments of great emotional power. At a rally to celebrate his release from prison, Nelson Mandela dances to Hugh Masekela's Mandela, a song that had been sung for years, despite the very mention of his name being banned. The smaller stories are equally affecting. Two sisters, who lived through the whole bloody period, defiantly treat the subject with humour, singing an old song about the pain of having to serve your oppressors: "Madam please, before you ask if your children are fine, ask me when I last saw mine."

Lee Hirsch, a first-time director, spent almost 10 years searching out archive material and getting to know his subjects. This extraordinary effort has produced a memorable film, which is seen as a stirring tribute to the spirit and warmth of the South African people. It is beautifully shot, using a wealth of archive footage and some surprisingly frank interviews.

However, despite its format, Hirsch isn't particularly interested in the development of the songs themselves, rather uses his theme to generate a multi-voiced personal history of the apartheid struggle. As such, the film lacks the focus of other recent documentary successes, but the force of the subject matter and the wonderfully uplifting music make it an inspiring experience.

Reviewed on: 18 Apr 2004
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Documentary exploring the history of protest songs in apartheid South Africa.
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