Plot: Drawn from a play, the film features two actors in roles of various black South Africans--a vendor, barber, servant, manual laborer, soldier--receiving the news that Christ (Morena) has arrived in South Africa, where a Calvinist white elite imposes apartheid. Christ's arrival precipitates a crisis, and the government launches a nuclear bomb against the peacemaker. In the ruins, great South African leaders in resistance to apartheid such as Albert Luthuli, assassinated president of the African National Congress, are resurrected.
Interwoven with segments from the play are documentary sequences from daily life scenes in South Africa, showing viewers the raw material from which the sketches are drawn. As well, the film includes interviews with the writers, who explain the reality from which they drew their skits. So viewers get, for each scene, the social and aesthetic background.
The film ends with two codas. After the actors begin the process of resurrecting black leaders, a clip of Albert Luthuli lecturing the great western powers--and implicitly the western audience, is shown: "It is these big nations," he says with graceful dignity, "that must do big things."
And then, as credits rolls, the film travels into the foyer of different South African theaters, interviewing blacks and whites about their very different reactions to the play.
Style: The film, interweaving documentary with performance footage, is an example of an international collaboration that successfully explains to a foreign audience the felt experience of an oppressed group. It is not, and is not intended, as a South African film. But it is an excellent showcase for a South African art form of resistance: agitprop and social theater, which in the 1980s became an important element of self-expression in the townships. (Although fixed theaters were not permitted, travelling performances were.)
Background on director/film: The original play and the film were written by and star the now-celebrated team of Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngena, who are former travelling theater performers. They got the idea for the play when they were on the road one day, and a show was cancelled for lack of a permit. They asked each other, "What if Christ come to South Africa?" and this became the hook for the production. They began researching by interviewing township residents, and developed the style of the play, influenced by Grotowski's Open Theater. Inspired by Athol Fugard's Sizwe Banze Is Dead, which had been produced by Barney Simon, director of the Market Theater in Johannesburg's financial district, they sought out Simon. He advised them that it would be politically delicate, but encouraged them. (Indeed at one point in their rehearsal in 1980, all three were jailed for a month without charges.) Simon later commented that the play is "very much reflective of my vision, which is a positive vision. It talks about the horrors of South Africa, but also the strength of the black people there. It talks about the gift of life and the abuse of life."
The play was a smash success, running 18 months in South Africa. It was never banned or censored. A BBC-TV team, led by David M. Thompson, undertook the filming of the movie while in South Afrca to film elections. Equipment was scant, as was time, but nonetheless the film captured the performances that are the core of the film.
Film production context: The film treats the social and economic reality of racial division, as well as the legal divisions of apartheid. (In a country where whites are less than a quarter of the population, Africans are zoned into 13 percent of the land, and much of that unproductive land. Their average wage is a fifth of white wages, and social statistics such as infant mortality reflect these inequalities among others.)
Black film production within South Africa--around three features a year--is focused almost exclusively on lowest-common-denominator entertainment (usually action-oriented), aimed at the male working class. There is modest state subsidy for such ventures, and they are typically extremely low budget, usually distributed on trucks with portable projectors. Scripts must be approved by a censor, as must films by and for whites. (See Mapantsula.) Along with grassroots theater, grassroots video has grown up in the later 1980s.
Woza Albert!, of course, was made outside this context. Its primary audience is outside South Africa, where it has been widely praised and seen.
Importance: Woza Albert! showcases a grassroots artform among people who do not have access to major media, while it also locates the issues for those not familiar with them.
Pat Aufderheide, "Facts of fiction from S. Africa," In These Times, May 29-June 11, 1985
David B. Coplan, In Township Tonight! South Africa's Black City Music and Theatre, Longman, 1986.
Harriet Gavshon, "Levels of intervention in films made for African audiences in South Africa," Critical Arts II:3, 1983
Guide to Films on Apartheid and the South African Region, Media Network, 208 W. 13th St., NY NY 10011, 212-620-0877
The Independent (Association of Film and Videomakers), IX:1, Jan-Feb 1986
Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, MacMillan, 1986
Keyan Tomaselli, The Cinema of Apartheid: Race and Class in South African Film, New York/Chicago: Smyrna/Lake View Press, 1988
William Bigelow, Strangers in Their Own Country: A curriculum Guide on South Africa. Africa World Press, of the Africa Research and Publications Projects, PO Box 1892, Trenton NJ 08608.
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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