Being a white, middle-class American male, my knowledge of the black struggle with apartheid in South Africa during the latter half of the 20th Century is virtually nil. My exposure to the music that was so instrumental to the success of that movement is even less. With these facts in mind, I was dreading having to review this title, as it is a documentary film covering a subject that I really had very little interest in.
My dread turned to fascination upon sitting down to watch the film, however. This is a… excellent documentary that hits a delicate balance between being informative, entertaining and beautiful. The struggle of the blacks in South Africa is told in a way that helped me to understand the intricacies of the situation in that country far better than anything that I have seen before. The powerful music of the movement is the star of the show here, with text and interview footage used sparingly to fill in the blanks. This fantastic film should be viewed by all Americans, as a reminder of the tragic realities that many people of the world face each day, due to the ignorance and fear of those who are frequently in power.
Audio quality is simply excellent on this disc. Song lyrics are very clear, with plenty of reverb. Choral pieces are particularly powerful, with the voices truly clear enough to give the impression that the singers are actually in the room with the viewer. Almost all of the audio comes from the front of house, but as the film (and the style of music) progresses, more and more of the audio is mixed into the back speakers, showcasing the evolution in recording techniques throughout the duration of the struggle. Bass tones are powerful and tight, and sonic imaging is fantastic. This may be the best soundtrack I have ever heard on a documentary piece.
The video quality isn’t quite up to the same high standards set by the audio, but it comes close. The various eras covered in the film result in a wide variation in the quality of the existing film footage utilized. As would be expected, the historical footage is quite bad during the first half of the film, but looks better as the film goes on. The new footage looks fantastic, however, with deep black levels and powerful colors. Lots of handheld cameras are used on location, resulting in a bit of shakiness, but overall this film looks great. Much of the grain and overexposure that would be problems in other films actually helps this one, adding to the hot, gritty feel of the African locations.
For a documentary title, this disc is packed with extras. A commentary track is available, as are trailers and production notes. Also, a 15-minute interview with ATO Records / ATO Pictures owner Dave Matthews (yes, that Dave Matthews) is included here, which is surprisingly interesting considering the fact that Matthews himself actually grew up in South Africa.
A three-song live performance by one of the subjects of the film, Vusi Mahlasela, is made available to the viewer as well. This fantastic guitarists performance is done justice with the presentation he receives, complete with wonderful sound and clear picture. Also included are no less than 19 deleted scenes, running 45 minutes in length. What’s more, an interesting sing-along section is also provided, which helps the viewer become even more immersed in the music that is so important to the film.
The only down side of the extras is the 20 minute Q & A Session with the director, producer, and Mahlasela. This could have been an interesting piece, but the shoddy camera work and horrific audio make it virtually unwatchable. Save this terrible featurette, the extras on this disc are of the utmost quality.
Artisan has done a fantastic job on this title, creating a product that is informative, educational, interesting and entertaining all at the same time. Never has this topic been addressed in a more understandable way than it is in this Sundance-Award-Winning feature. The film gets the treatment it deserves on this release, making for an excellent package both for documentary film fans and for those who are sympathetic to the painful struggles of South African politics.
Special Features List
- Dave Matthews Interview
- Q&A With Director, Producer and Vusi Mahlasela
- Vusi at Joe’s Pub
- Amandla! Production Notes
- Commentary with Director and Producer
- 45 Minutes of Deleted Scenes/Musical Performances
- Trailer Gallery