The film opens with a faint sound, a vibration that says something's coming, and so you listen very closely. Then there are voices—many—singing the full and glorious harmonies of Africa. It's an overwhelming gospel of possibility sung by those who had nothing but hope and their voices with which to sing. Such is Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a documentary produced and directed by Lee Hirsch on the critical role music played in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Amandla!, which means "power" in Swahili, is an HBO-financed project that won the Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It will air on HBO, although programmers haven't yet set a date. Part living history lesson, part archival search, Hirsch interviews activists, poets, and singers for their stories of how they lived under the brutally repressive system of forced separation in South Africa. Activists explain how the songs and chants gave voice to blacks as they narrated the stories of the forced relocations from their homes in the city into shantytowns. The songs said to the minority whites: "Here are the black people." By also including archival films, Hirsch puts us in the front row of the chorus, where historic gatherings of protesters sang with every part of their bodies—their feet dancing, their hands raised in fists of prayer, and their heads bobbing to a rhythm of release. The struggle against apartheid consumed one's life and soul.