A Revolution in Four Part Harmony
Interview with Lee Hirsch
interview by Dan Lybarger, 17 January 2003

When I met first-time documentarian Lee Hirsch in Kansas City last October, he looked a bit tired. He had not slept in nearly 48 hours. This temporary sleep deprivation was nothing compared to the decade he had devoted to making Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a detailed look at how music helped bring down Apartheid in South Africa. It features commentary and tunes from musicians as diverse as jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singers Miriam Makeba and Vusi Mahlasela. It even includes Apartheid-era propaganda clips and American news footage narrated by Walter Cronkite.

Later in the evening when Hirsch was presenting the movie to a packed crowd at FilmFest KC, he showed no signs of exhaustion or any hint of wavering enthusiasm for the movement that inspired his film. He greeted the crowd with a boisterous "Amandla!," which means "power" in the Zulu language. When the audience was supposed to reply with the words for  "to the people", Hirsch gently chided them for their lack of enthusiasm until their response to his call was sufficiently loud.

Even if Hirsch hadn't come to personally support the film, his passion for the music and culture of South Africa runs through every frame. As a result, he won the Audience Award for Documentary and the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Now thirty, Hirsch looked at my Abudullah Ibrahim CD and told me the tune African Market "rocks!" as if he were still in his teens. His eagerness is accompanied by a detailed knowledge of the region and its history. With all that he has done, there is a sense that his efforts and the revolution he covers will continue. 

Dan Lybarger: One of the most astonishing things about this film is that you started on it when you were nineteen. What made you explore this topic? I understand you met somebody from South Africa.

Lee Hirsch: I was picked on a lot when I was a kid, so I had a sort of empathy. I was an activist [pauses]. I am an activist, so for me at the time of my formative years South Africa became my central cause, what I really worked on. I led a divestment campaign. I realized very quickly that Iíd need to know a whole lot more than I knew. I had a sort of peripheral right and wrong sense of South Africa. To argue with CEOs and corporate executives, you really have to know what youíre talking about. So the deeper I got and the more passionate I became, the more the music started creeping in different ways. I started hearing it and feeling connected to it more, of course, not being able to get more because it wasnít available. It was what it was. And being taken by it. By staying focused to the music, the more I heard. I started learning some of the songs.

I did meet a young South African my age whoíd been exiled and tortured in prison. He taught me some songs, and that was really powerful for me. And then it kind of lay dormant for a few years after Mandela got out of prison. Everyone sort of shifted their energies to other things, and the ANC [African National Congress] were doing their own thing.  It started by being in the anti-Apartheid movement and being drawn to the music Iíd been hearing.

It was always there. You watch any news report from the '80s. In the footage, beneath the reporterís voice, was the music.

DL: Were you surprised that music was such an integral part of the Anti-Apartheid movement?

LH: I sort of knew that it was. I saw it and felt it. Something in me picked up on that. I donít know what; I donít know why. I clued into that.

I would go and talk to people, and theyíd go ďWhat are you talking about?Ē Black South Africans would go, ďOh, sh*t. Yeah, youíre right. We never stopped to think about it. We never paused. It was something that was just part and parcel of who we are and the way we express ourselves. Ē So naturally it was part of the struggle. No one had time to stop and take pause and take stock of the fact that this is a phenomenon.

In a way, I had this amazing thing about being this outsider who came in, who saw something extraordinary in something people saw as everyday. 

My whole stint in South Africa was marked by that kind of perspective that I had. Iíd spent a couple of years directing music videos there and was very lucky and became the number one guy for a while. The reason why my videos were appealing to people was for the same reason. Within black culture, I was seeing things to celebrate that other people took for granted. I mixed that with a sort of American sensibility and hip-hop. They didnít have MTV back then. The only videos they really saw were like multimillion dollar hip-hop videos occasionally, and these crap crap local music videos where the band would be playing, and thereíd be a bunch of topless women wearing these Zulu skirts in front of a mine dump dancing. And thatís what it was. That was a music video back then. We really switched that out and started doing some sophisticated stuff.

Again people were psyched at the way we were seeing them, showing their culture on film in this fresh way that celebrated what was already there. They might not have noticed, but I noticed.

DL: Iím still haunted by the story of Vuyisile Mini singing on his way to the gallows. Were you actually there to photograph the exhumation of his body?

LH: I was. Thatís all our footage.  I actually helped work with the family to have the whole thing happen. I feel really proud of that part of the film. At one point we were going to have this massive rally to celebrate Mini. It ended up being a beautiful ceremony as it was, which I didnít organize. Itís better that way because Iím a documentary filmmaker. If you start making those things, you start to blur the lines.

DL: You start to get into Leni Riefenstahl territory.

LH: Thatís interesting territory [food service comes in]. I havenít had anything to eat since 4 a.m. Will you forgive me?

DL: When you were doing the interview segments, when did you do most of those 

LH: Our first review that we ever got, the reviewer hated the film, and he wrote, ďNo matter how many times Hirsch swings his camera around, itís still just talking heads.Ē We did those in 1999 and 2000. We had a solid four-week shoot when we did all the interviews. Not all of them, just those polished ones. We assessed what holes we had about a week and a half or a month later and did some pick up interviews. Miriam Makeba hadnít agreed to do the film when we had the main shoot, and then she agreed to be in the film later.

DL: Was it tough to get their trust?

LH: This is the thing. I was there for so long, and over the nine years, a lot of the people in the film became my friends. And people saw me struggling to make the film. I was broke. I was bumming money off my friends so I could eat. People knew the passion and commitment I had and by the time I showed up with a crew, a track and a dolly, it made a big difference.

They already had a comfort level with, ďOh this is an American, and heís just coming in.Ē I was practically South African at that point. The fact that the film took so long is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that it nearly drove me mad. It was really hard to be focused and obsessed with one thing for ten years. It was crazy, and people thought I was nuts. I went through some really hard times. The positive is that there was an intimacy and a comfort. Trust is a big thing. People really trusted me and put faith in me to tell this story.  They didnít have to.

DL: Even the white former riot police seemed comfortable with you.

LH: That was the gift of alcohol. Itís very helpful sometimes.

DL: The former executioner seemed at ease with you, too.

LH: He was a very interesting character in the film, huh? Scary.

DL: He reminded me of Fred Leuchter Jr. in Errol Morrisí Mr. Death.

LH: [Morris] and I went to the same high school in Vermont, a progressive boarding school. A lot of artists come out of there. We were lucky to get to go there.

DL: Your executioner is much more matter of fact about his job, whereas Leuchter is giddy. Your guy isnít giddy.

LH: No, heís not. He really wanted to do that interview. He drove four hours to do that interview. He wanted to talk. He wanted to tell his story.  It was amazing because when we had our gala premiere in South Africa, some had debated whether to invite him for a long time. We didnít invite the riot police.

But I decided to invite him. And he came to this film with a very different spirit. He did what he did, but there was an honesty in his confession. I think his interview is like a confession.

He came to the premiere, and he was like the first guy to show up. As his scene came on, I got really worried. I was like, ďDid we do the right thing by having him here?Ē Because thereís a room of like 400 comrades.

So his scene played, and when the movie was over, there was this party afterwards. We were getting down. I kept seeing people coming up to him and hugging him. Black South Africans. Hugging him. And then he came over and thanked us for having him. He was having this incredible experience. Women, girls were just getting down with him on the dance floor. For me, thereís no better evidence of the kind of reconciliation and the spirit of reconciliation in South Africa than that moment. It tells so much.

The interview was really chilling because it was in the prison. That whole scene with those prisoners dancing and stomping, that was what was literally happening while the interview was going on. That was like, ďWhatís that music?Ē We turned to the warden, who was closely supervising everything, and we stopped the interview and shot them. It was amazing.

DL: Whatís amazing about that African National Congress theme (Nkosi Sikelíi Africa) that you played in the film is that it doesnít have any images of war or antagonism like the Star Spangled Banner or the Marseillaise do.

LH: It was composed by a guy named Enoch Sontanga in the early 1900s, itís a beautiful song. Although some of the songs in the later years did [have violent themes]. But by the lyrics having that confrontational edge, even though the lyrics were violent, the fact that they were violent allowed the people to be nonviolent. By pretending Iím an MK [the militant wing of the ANC] soldier and singing songs, Iím expressing it as like performance art. Iím expressing it even though Iím not doing it. Not to say that everyone was peaceful and innocent because there was a lot of violence in the struggle. A lot of people think that it was a totally nonviolent struggle, and thatís bullsh*t. There was violence. People died.

DL: Yes, because you had told me earlier that you were there during the Winnie Mandela hearings.

LH: Case in point.

DL: Itís interesting that sheís reviled, and that her former husband, Nelson Mandela, is revered.

LH: Rightfully so. He does deserve it. He laid the ground, didnít he? Itís nice to be celebrated, and heís still with us.

DL: Even though South Africa has terrible problems with AIDS and economic woes and the trade union issues, the transition between Apartheid and the current government could have been much worse.

LH: Totally. Like when Duma says, ďI thought our young men were running straight into the sea. Whites would wake up and shoot everybody dead. We were going somewhere, but where we didnít know.Ē Even in 1992. Even in '94, a week before the election, everybody thought the country was going to f*cking explode. To be there and see it go down, it was like a miracle.

I almost died in a bombing two days before the election. I was on my way to a meeting in the ANC national headquarters. I was late. Had I been on time, I would have been parking right where the bomb went off.

DL: Thereís something hidden in this music thatís really fascinating. With Meadowlands, you have this cheery melody, and when you actually bother to analyze the lyrics, itís creepy.

LH: I donít think thatís what the song means. I think she was giving a metaphor. I think Meadowlands, makes a statement about [government-forced] removal and not moving. I donít think it says like [Sophie McGina and Dolly Rathebe] said, ďIíll shoot you. Iíll kill you.Ē That was just an example of how the songs can be like that.

But, yeah, there are a lot of coded messages in the songs. Like slave songs. Hugh Masekela actually did something in his interview about how ďWhen the sun sets, weíre going to plant the seed. And when the sun sets, weíre going to catch the Underground Railroad.Ē That kind of thing. Itís all coded. There was a lot of that in the resistance music. It also got out the message. It told people who the leader is, what the message is, what the program is, what this monthís plan is. It all came through the music.

DL: It was able to reach people in a way banners or protest journals couldnít.

LH: There werenít protest journals. That was a luxury the struggle didnít have. It all came through the music, and the same one melody could be recycled and switched and changed 200 times with the lyrics just changing, updating and refreshing. Itís amazing, and suddenly everybody knows when theyíre singing that new version across the country.

DL: In the editing, you were able to show the thematic development by overlapping some tunes. The songs fit even thought they were recorded separately.

LH: I knew people had this just amazing tonal ability where it would match in pitch and tempo. Where possible, I tried to get as many people as possible to sing the same song as I could knowing that I would try this kind of circular singing in the editing room. We had a lot more of an interesting fit into the structure.

DL: What will you be doing with the soundtrack album?

LH: We just mastered the soundtrack. Did you know we did this with Dave Matthews?

DL: No, tell me about it.

LH: His company, ATO Records, is putting out the soundtrack. You can buy it right now at ďAccording to Our.Ē Itís being funneled with the new David Gray release. Itís twenty-nine tracks of music. Itís awesome. Itís so rich, and some of this stuff is not in the film. Itís some bonus stuff, some surprises. Iíve got hundreds of hours of music that isnít in the movie, so look out for more stuff.

Weíre doing a second album. Itís an ďinspired byĒ album, so itís Dave Matthews, myself and my partner Sherry Simpson. Sheís my producer. Sheís an amazing woman. Weíre going to be executive-producing this all-star tribute to the power of song. Itís a charity album.

DL: Last year I interviewed Argentinean composer Lalo Schifrin, and he was saying that he was in awe of the way that African music has such complicated rhythms and tempo shifts.

LH: It amazes me, too. I wish I was a musician. The filmís about music because I canít play music. The little I know is southern Africa is vocal. Other parts are percussive, west Africa particularly or north Africa. In southern Africa, itís just vocal. Itís completely rooted in society. Itís everywhere. People sing when theyíre happy or theyíre sad. For weddings, funerals or marriages. The whole cycle of life is marked in songs. Itís only natural that song would be a bearer of the struggle. Hopefully, it will continue to be there.

Itís changed a lot. The culture has shifted a hundred-fold since 1995, completely moving away from the collective to the individual kind of expression to hip-hop and western. The resource is in people. When they need it, they can draw on it.

DL: Thereís one absolutely jaw-dropping clip you used to illustrate the passbook period where a white woman thoroughly goes over her servantís passbook, and the narrator makes fun of the poor manís dental work by announcing that ďnothing missing but one tooth.Ē

LH: Itís amazing. A new friend of mine, an Afrikaans girl who was working for SABC, was working on special assignment to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for South African television. She had found it in her research in the deep archives, and she smuggled me a copy on Beta of that clip. This is the most amazing clip.

[He later remembers during a roundtable interview] In about '95, I had seen a lot of footage inside a march. The journalists are with the protesters, or their car's on the protester's side of the line shooting forward. But I hadn't seen anything from the police lines. But in a lot of the footage, I saw there was always a cameraman working with the Special Branch who was filming these marches and protests, largely because they were looking to isolate the ringleaders on video, and also because they were studying the formation of marches and protests. I was really interested in what the police had in terms of footage. I tracked down the police and Special Branch video unit, which was still operating at the time because there was this whole weird transformation process where a lot of people were kept on or slowly phased out. It was a really interesting time in all phases of society of South Africa. Because of the peaceful transition, every sector went through a transition of its own.

So anyway, I met this guy who was with the video unit, and he agreed to take me to the facility. I sort of played like I was this dumb American kid -- in fact, I am all that -- but I was interested in policing, riots. I didn't really tell him what my politics were or where I was coming from. I ended up in this multimillion dollar facility in Pretoria, South Africa. It had like four edit bays. It was better than anything I had ever worked with in my life. They had this whole propaganda machine set up. It was just before everyone really started covering their a**es. They were showing me all of this really intense stuff, like, "Oooo. Let me show you this." And we'd go to a closet and unlock a door and take out this tape that made me go "Oh, my God! That's some heavy, heavy sh*t!" When I went back and asked for the footage, they had destroyed all of it in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as evidence. I still kept the name of this guy who was really nice to me, and when we shot the film, I said, "Here's what I remember from that day, and I'd really like to try and recreate that." So he helped round up all the generals and these guys, which I don't think I could have done. They agreed miraculously to come to this barbecue. The liquor flowed, and this amazing session, which plays a really strong part in the film presenting what they felt.

I did get some footage from the National Film Archive of South Africa, which was a sort of Apartheid institution, but by the time I went to them, the woman who was running it was really liberal and she was open about everything they had. In fact the Walter Cronkite stuff that I got was from them. They had it as a representation of propaganda from the other side about Apartheid. And their print was actually better than the one CBS had in New York, so that's the one that ended up in the film. That "Nothing Missing but One Tooth" thing that we were just talking about, came from a friend of mine at the SABC who found it and smuggled me a copy of it. I am now paying through the teeth for it.

DL: How did you get Dave Matthews involved with the soundtrack?

LH: Dave's South African. I knew that in the back of my mind. The first artist I got turned on to in South Africa in 1982 was Vusi Mahlasela, the guy who plays guitar in the film. Vusi had just released his first album, Waiting to Come Back. Two of the songs on the film are from that album. It's an unbelievable album. For me, it's like groundbreaking. And I met him, and he because a really good friend for me. I'd go spend Sundays in his house in this township outside of Pretoria. This is the guy who is now on his fifth album. Up till a year ago, he lived in a tin shack. That gives you a little bit of an idea of what South Africa is like for some people. I was hugely committed to his career because of all the artists I know, he has the most amazing crossover potential. But his music could really take off here. Everyone I ever played his music for was going, "Yeah! He rocks! Burn me that!" Before that even, I was making tapes, just giving out CDs. Isn't that amazing the whole burning thing?

Dave, little did I know, also got into Vusi. At that point we were all working together, and then Dave pretty much goes to South Africa every year as a clandestine holiday. He goes and just chills with his friends and is not a star for a little while. He did a song with Vusi that we made in the studio we were at that's never been released. So I knew there was some love. There was like some "Dave Matthews Vusi Love" out there. We'd been trying to get Vusi signed and we brought Vusi out twice to the States for a showcase gig. There was a lot of politics involved.  Basically when the film was completed and a rough cut was done days before Sundance, I sent the film to Dave's people at ATO Records. It's his record label, and they just loved it. I got a call back from him a week later. "We loved it. Dave loves it. Let's do the deal." They came to Sundance. We started negotiating, and we closed the deal. That's how it happened. It's awesome I can't even tell you how great it is.

With a documentary film -- we've been rejected by a lot of festivals -- What if Sundance had rejected us and we didnít win two awards? Would this film be stuck in the road somewhere? For me it's always like, "How lucky we are, but what can we do to bring the profile of this film up?" I think Dave will reach a lot of people who might not know about this film otherwise. He's amazing. He's a great link to college aged people and people in their 20s and early 30s who love and respect him. It'll really help us.

DL: Negotiating the rights for songs can be very difficult.

LH: It is a pain. We have 100 cues for music in this film that all have to be documented and approved and licensed for evidence that they're public domain. It's been an endless task. It's a real quagmire.

DL: Have the musicians who have been exiled been able to return to South Africa?

LH: Many haven't. Hugh Maseka said like of the 300,000 people who went into exile, only 20,000 returned. Don't quote me, but it's that kind of a figure. A lot died in exile. Some had lives that forever changed and didn't want to go back. Anyone who wanted to return, could return and went back to where they were before.

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