Reviewed by: David Stanners

Before being bulldozed as a cornerstone of "subversion", Sophiatown was a small township in 1940s/50s Johannesburg. Amidst the austerity of apartheid, with whites-only suburbia on all sides, it became a thriving artistic refuge from the racial intolerance of the regime. With its own burgeoning economy and culture, it provided an enclave for black artists, musicians and jazz singers to flourish and in its own way form a bulwark against the racial dogma of mainstream politics.

Within this melting pot emerged some of the brightest, boldest and most talented black artists in South Africa. Jazz and blues singers, such as Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka and Thandi Klassen, pioneered messages of black consciousness and artistic collaboration. Rathebe was one of the first great female voices to carve her way onto the black music scene, as well as the bedroom walls of every young man in town. Full of wry humour and charm, she was one of the original pin up faces of local magazine covers in South Africa.

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Alongside her came Dorothy Masuka, a prolific songwriter and blues singer, whose music, tinged with socio-political conscience, sang the voice of the whole community. Although her political songs were largely burnt at the stake, her voice continued to tread the subversive path and because of her vocal gifts she was often secretly invited by white families to perform at parties.

A whole spate of other characters and musicians come to the forefront to discuss their lives before their town was destroyed. Perhaps, the most important of all is Nelson Mandela. First, as a lawyer with a sharp suit and razor intellect, and later, as a political activist, he expressed how the musicians and artists lifted his spirits and provided a strong cultural platform for political dissent.

More could have been made of this, however. There were obvious criminal and gangster elements that Mandela would have been quick to avoid and condemn, as detrimental to their resistance campaign. Little is said on this.

We learn that 1955 spelt the beginning of the end for Sophiatown. When the police weighed in and displaced the locals from their homes, the artists and musicians were either forced into exile abroad, or into dead end jobs, alcohol or drug abuse. Many, however, continued beating their artistic drum in the ears of apartheid. One unlucky recipient - singer Thandi Klassen - felt the full wrath of the government's fist. Burnt and beaten, her story is drenched in pain and misery, but speaking with clear minded nostalgia, her spirit triumphs.

This documentary is an unsentimental portrayal of a time experienced and cherished by a community at odds with a senseless vision of the world. More emphasis on the plight of other ethnic groups would have provided additional breadth, but this is a story of the little man fighting his corner against a bully. When crushed and beaten to the ground, the little man's soul emerges triumphant, with faith and integrity.

Reviewed on: 16 Aug 2003
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Documentary about black cultural renaissance during apartheid in an area of Johannesburg in the Forties and Fifties.

Director: Pascale Lamche

Writer: Pascale Lamche

Starring: Hugh Masekela, Nelson Mandela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jurgen Schadeiberg, Jonas Gwaglia, Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka

Year: 2003

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: Ireland/UK/South Africa


EIFF 2003

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