Saturday 19 November 2011

Vukani – Awake! (1962) A cinematic context

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.

Lionel Ngakane
South African director Lionel Ngakane (1928 – 2003) is considered as one of the fathers of African cinema – at least outside South Africa. Within the borders of the country most people have never heard of him, despite the fact that his reputation equals that of Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop-Mambety, Souleyman Cissé or Med Hondo. The legendary ‘table of the elders’ at the pool of the Hotel Independence, reserved for the real dignitaries during Ouagadougou’s bi-annual Pan-African Film Festival FESPACO, used to be occupied by Sembene from Senegal, as well as Henri Duparc and Désiré Ecaré from Côte d’Ivoire – and by Lionel Ngakane.

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’.

Lionel Ngakane
At the time of the production of ‘Vukani – Awake’ most of the countries in West Africa already had won their independence. And it is this part of Africa that people remember as the birthplace of African Cinema; Senegal in particular, where Sembene and Paulin Soumanou Vieyra were fighting for their possibilities to make films, or perhaps Niger, where Moustapha Alassane tried the same. ‘Vukani – Awake’, however, was the first film shot by an African filmmaker on the African continent. But whenever or wherever the start of African cinema is claimed Lionel Ngakane and ‘Vukani – Awake’ are missing.

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.

Rapidshare here
Mediafire here


  1. Chris, this is amazing!!!
    Thanks a ton to you, Max and Henriette.

  2. Amazing stuff - thank you for this wonderful insight.

  3. chris
    I have just downloaded it and started watching but there seems to be no sound track ... just checking if that is as as it should be?

  4. The divx sound does work - I promise. One other person who downloaded it (on a MAC) initially did have no sound, but sorted it out with something called "Perian". I think it might also be about which version of divx you have? The sound track is strong and worth hearing. Good luck

  5. :) thanks for the fast response.... yup I also downloaded to a mac... thanks for the Perian pointer I will look at that and keep finfers crossed.... the footage looks interesting so I hope I can sort it ...

  6. Love those silky smooth whistle harmonies at about 2min.

    Does anyone know who the kwela band was or recognise any of the members?

    Thanks for sharing this!


  7. Chris: great piece of history. Thanks for this.
    I've downloaded VCL on my MacBook and am able to see and hear fine. Patrick (ex meander)


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