For more than two years Electric Jive has been sharing some wonderful and diverse South African music, and when time permits, also providing a little context and background. Only ten percent of the fifteen thousand or so monthly hits on this website are from within South Africa, so we cannot and should not assume your experience and knowledge of the powerful social and political forces that contributed to a music that provided oppressed generations with joy, celebration, inspiration, upliftment and avenues of cultural expression.
We depart from the musical norm today to share an historically fascinating fifteen-minute movie – not only the first by an African to describe South Africa's conditions, but actually the first film to be shot by an African film-maker on the African continent. While I have some idea of South Africa's music from the early sixties, I have limited knowledge of its film. For this reason I asked my good friends Max Annas and Henriette Gunkel to tell us a little about Lionel Ngakane and the cinematic window he provides into South Africa at that time. The next installment of our usual musical offerings will follow in a few days – but we do believe there are many out there who will find this movie very interesting.
Ngakane, born in Pretoria, was a student at the University of Fort Hare in Alice and at Wits in Johannesburg. He worked as a journalist for DRUM before he became involved in film. In 1952 Zoltan Korda made him assistant director for his Paton adaptation ‘Cry, the beloved country’, in which Ngakane also featured as an actor in the role of Absalom. At that time he had already spent two years in exile in England. He made a living from acting, mostly through smaller roles, but wanted to be a filmmaker. ‘The trouble in this country is that people in theatre and films simply can't visualise a coloured man as a director’, Ngakane said in an interview (see here). ‘It is hard enough to get through to one of them, and when you do, you hear the secretary say to the boss – “There's a coloured gentleman on the phone”...’
So it was only in 1962 that Ngakane was able to make his first film. With his own camera he went back to South Africa and looked at the living and working conditions of black people in his country. ‘Vukani – Awake’ focuses on poverty and the reasons for it. In this film Ngakane documents the newly builttownships and explains that black people – he says WE in the off commentary – do not want to live there. He counters the images by portraying how white people live and how labor is organized to benefit them – and not the people who do the work.
‘Vukani – Awake’ sets out a number of firsts. It was the first film made by an African person that documents the situation black people had to live in. It was the first movie that was made to mobilize the public – nationally and internationally – against the Apartheid regime. And it was the first visual expression of what was to become the next step in the struggle against racialized injustice – as it was not just a hidden message of the film that the fight against oppression would turn into an armed one from now on. It took more than another ten years before a similar attempt to describe South African realities attracted more attention, when a collective clandestinely shot and distributed ‘Last Grave at Dimbaza’.
Five years later Ngakane produced his most famous film in London. ‘Jemima & Johnny’, inspired by riots in Notting Hill, is the fantasy - or if you want an utopian future - of a non-racial society expressed through the story of a little girl and a little boy who wander about the British capital. He made a documentary on Nelson Mandela for British TV in the 80s before he returned to South Africa where he lived until his death in 2003.
The movie is in divx format and is about 150mb in size.