History is what happened before we were born. At least that’s what I thought in elementary school. One of the weird things about getting older is watching the events that have occurred during my lifetime morph into subsequent generations’ history. Nothing brings that home quite like Have You Heard From Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West, which revisits the U.S. anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Didn’t that just happen? Isn’t it way too soon, and those events too fresh, to be the subject of a historical film? Or might we discern, by some stretch of the imagination, a kernel of relevance to the present?
It is this last question that seems to be fueling veteran East Bay filmmaker Connie Field’s fire. Have You Heard From Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West is the fourth episode (and the first to be finished and publicly screened) in her stupendously bold six-part series recounting the international campaign to demolish and abolish South Africa’s racist apartheid system. Field clearly views the anti-apartheid movement as a milestone in citizen democracy, relations among nations and human morality — and one whose lessons have already been forgotten or whitewashed.
Let’s take a moment first to look at the little picture. Field’s major challenge in Have You Heard From Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West
, given the number of people who were involved in the issue, their range of activities and the countless campuses and other points of conflict across the U.S., is developing momentum without sacrificing depth and context. Alas, it takes the film several minutes to draw us in, and the familiar strategy of blending archival television news footage and current interviews with the key participants is neither fresh nor exciting. We feel as if we’re watching history, not living it, and that makes all the difference.
Although our sympathies for the good guys are never in question, the doc fails to thrust us into the middle of the fight, which burst into the national consciousness when the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups took to the streets outside the South African embassy with the successful goal of being regularly arrested. (Part of the problem is that Field feels compelled to cut periodically to police riots and protest marches in Fredonia, so we don’t lose sight of the cause and who’s enduring the real suffering.) The torch was picked up by dozens of student groups, demanding that colleges divest their portfolios of investments in companies who did business with the apartheid regime. It is only when the battle comes to a head in Congress that Apartheid and the Club of the West achieves high drama, with Ronald Reagan vetoing a bipartisan bill approving economic sanctions.
In her previous, invaluable documentaries, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) and Freedom On My Mind (1994), Field did the great service of spotlighting progressive high points of America’s recent past that have been left out of textbooks (the essential work that women did in American factories during World War II) or systemically denied and revised by conservative pundits and politicians (the impact of students and other activists in the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s). This is not a role we often speak of, the documentary maker as excavator and defender of historical truth. But it has become an essential one, as the selective memory of the Reagan Era (long before the Gipper was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s) has evolved into the bald lies and cynical denials of the Bush Administration.
Knowledge is one thing; action is another. It’s impossible to watch Have You Heard From Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West and not think about the dearth of anti-Iraq War protests on college campuses, or the general lack of political opposition across the country. One gathers that Field’s main goal is to rouse an apathetic populace — to remind us that history happens on our watch, no matter when or where we live.
Have You Heard From Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West opens Friday, Nov. 2, 2007 at the Roxie New College Film Center. Filmmaker Connie Field will be present after the 7 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday.