February 2003
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony : An Interview with Director Lee Hirsch

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony: An Interview with Director Lee Hirsch

Itís not easy trying to make a film. Heck, itís even harder when youíre young and have no initial funding and the subject matter is heavy to cover. But with passion, patience and persistence, things can be done. Coming out this week is the acclaimed film that won 2 awards, including the Audience Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. The film is Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony and it was directed by a young man who spent 9 years of his life researching and gathering materials for a film that everybody should see and remember. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Director Lee Hirsch discusses his passion for the film and the music.

WM: What inspired you to get involved in this project at such a young age when most folks at that age are still trying to decide what to do with their lives?

LH: Iíd say, for me, I became pretty conscious and political when I was 15 so it was like a march forward from there. By the time I was 19, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker because I wanted to use this forum to get my message out. I felt it was a powerful medium and I thought there was a connection between being conscious and being an activist, and making films that would be seen by a large audience. So when I had the idea, because I had been following the music, and I had active in the anti-apartheid movement, that when I wanted to make a film about it. I was like ďOh my God, what if I could make a film about the power of songs on South Africa?Ē I had no idea if this was viable or if people would talk to me or trust me or join me in the effort. I felt like I should go over there and see and thatís what happened.

WM: At such a young, were any of your friends helping you and what did your parents say about your goals?

LH: My parents thought I was nuts. My parents are older, Jewish, and conservative and they havenít gotten me for a long time. I think some of my friends were supportive initially. They were behind me in the things I was doing. I was working with Dennis Banks who founded the American Indian movement and I was really active on that camp. People sort of knew me to do things like that. It wasnít like out of the blue for me to be going to South Africa to do a film about revolutionary songs. I think the strongest friendship in terms of support was Sherry, who came aboard a year and a half so later in í94. She has been my partner in this and my best friend the last nine years. We held each other up in going through the struggles in making this film.

WM: Have a project and making it come to fruition is one thing, but letís talk about the funding. Unless you are well off, where did the money come to support your project for over 9 years?

LH: We are both desperately broke. Our credit cards are maxed out. It hasnít been easy. There are some documentary filmmakers that have offices and a staff and make movies and have funding. It wasnít like that for us. It was always a struggle. Whether it was like showing up at Kinkoís at 3 a.m because there was someone there we talked to about the film and believe in it and was willing to let us make proposals for free. We would be there until 10 am the next morning when the job was done. We both really struggle to raise the money for this film and to keep going when the money had ran out or while we were waiting for new injections, or the next level, there were a lot of hard moments and a lot of upsets. It was upsetting for me as a first time director and I think Sherry thought it would be a little easier because she had been producing successful music videos and representing successful directors in that world, and felt connected in the hip-hop world. She thought that was the community that would fund this film. I think that in the end the money came from HBO. But that wasnít easy money either, that was like, it was wonderful that they gave us the money, but they only gave it to us when we came up with the rest. The Ford Foundation, some private donors, and a broadcasting corporation were the principal financiers of the film.

WM: What did you want to focus more, the songs or the history of Apartheid?

LH: Absolutely and completely the songs. I did not want to make a film about the history of Apartheid because other filmmakers have done that already. I wanted to make a film about the phenomenon and the magic and the celebration of the songs and the impact it had with the human spirit and how it became a tool, and weapon for change. The history came from learning how to make a film and understanding how much of that we needed to put in. The balance of that came from having to root songs and having to give people understanding, and the challenge historically was to sort of tell just enough. Give just enough, so that if you didnít know anything about South Africa, youíll get the film. If you did know, you would still enjoy the film, particularly when one thinks of a South African audience. I say this with complete honesty, that the most important audience for this film is not an American audience, it black South Africans. Thatís our audience.

WM: Was there any resistance as far as getting research and people speaking to you because you are white?

LH: Actually to the contrary, I would say it was an asset. Sounds weird, but itís true. I think that being an American, although now itís different, but then was helpful. I think folks werenít used to white folks like me. Iíd come in and Iíd be like singing with everybody and lead in songs, and learning songs, and asking for the lyrics. I was so passionate about the subject matter and I have credentials from the struggle which helped a lot. I had to tell them what I had, and what I was doing, and why I was doing it. They found me amusing. They got used to me and my camera. They got used to me asking them questions about songs. By the time I show up with a film crew, most folks had known me for over 5 years and knew how much I struggled to get the film made. Iím just happy that it finally came together. It may not be the answer people expect, but thatís how it was.

WM: Was it difficult for you to get people on camera and retell their stories?

LH: It was a challenge getting people like Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masekela because a lot of people want them to do interviews. They have done a lot and they havenít gotten a lot back. So those guys were really challenging. But for the most part, I think people were pretty comfortable in sharing their stories and if it became emotional, thatís how it went. We tried to protect people as well. Thereís a scene we cut where someone breaks down and cries. We didnít want to show that.

WM: Besides the executioner, was anyone else from the government that you wanted to film but couldnít get?

LH: Yeah, I went after the premiere of Johannesburg, but he was too busy. He wasnít against the film; he just couldnít find the time. I really wanted the actual hangman and I searched for 2 years. By the time I found him, he was dead. Whether he would have done it or not, I donít know. I think we got who we wanted to get.

WM: With 9 years vested in the project, what kept you going?

LH: I think the thing that kept me going was absolute passion and belief in the subject matter. I really, really believe that itís a message for the world to hear. I think itís a message for young people. I think itís a message for people that are in struggles. I also think itís a message for people that feel voiceless. I felt that the music of South Africa was in danger of being lost. I really believe that these songs could disappear and it was really important to preserve them and I did my part to do that. I think more of it was my absolute faith in the film. When you reach the point of no return, especially after 7 years, I had to keep going.

WM: With so hours of interviews and footage on tape, how difficult was it editing and leaving some stuff out?

LH: It was very difficult. We edited the film for over a year and a half. We had three editors. The last one was our angel and magician Johanna Demetrakas. I was very emotional about things that had to be left behind. I wanted to see more singing. I wanted to see more grass roots of the songs. There were other freedom fighters that I really loved that I had to cut out. There was a lot of other stuff that had to be let go.

WM: Letís talk about the soundtrack. How did Dave Matthews get involved?

LH: We always knew there would be a soundtrack. We shop it on many different occasions and at many different stages during the filming. We sent the movie to Dave Matthews about a month before it went to Sundance and they loved it. I met Dave through his connection with Vusi Mahlasela. They both watched the film and cried. Literally within days, they called us back and Dave said they (his record label) wanted to put the soundtrack out.

WM: My favorite track on the soundtrack is ďThe Untold StoryĒ by Sibongile Khumalo and Themba Mkhize. In the film, her performance is the longest of all the performances. Any particular reason for that?

LH: I think that if it hadnít build to the crescendo that it builds to, it might not have played that long. It was the finally, and we had the montage of the heroes and we just played that scene. For me, it was about not forgetting the ancestors and their contributions. I thought it was one of my favorite songs as well. She did that in one take with no rehearsals. The last half of the song is all improv.

WM: With this month being Black History Month, what do want folks to walk away with when they finish watching this film?

LH: If they could away with a sense of power, a sense of encouragement, and a sense of inspiration about their own ability to change the world, particularily in light of whatís going on right now with the threat of war, and how important is it for us to stop whatís going on. If that happens, then Iíll be very happy.