Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Filming South Africa: A Personal Quest

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Filming South Africa: A Personal Quest

Article excerpt

Villon Films (http:/ / is a former production company that is now largely devoted to the distribution and collection of films, videos and photos on a variety of subjects. Most of these are related to my work when I was more active in production, and consist mainly of social and political subjects ranging from 1960s Britain to the USA, Central America, the Middle East, and Africa. Of interest to current readers would be my African collection, which is based on my anti-apartheid work which began in 1975 and ended during the last years of the old regime. It includes some work done after the ending of apartheid, and extends to some other parts of Africa.

My work on Africa began as a cameraman for the American NGO CARE, in the early 'seventies, when, if I recall correctly, I covered ten countries in about thirty days. I passed through South Africa at that time en route to Lesotho and Swaziland, so I acquired a taste of apartheid. Not that apartheid was off my political map before then - in the '50s and '60s, for all those who care to recall, it was integral to the political landscape in Britain: I have photos I took at that time of a rally in Trafalgar Square, opposite South Africa House, that feature Oliver Tambo and Harold Wilson protesting against arms sales to South Africa.

It was my first South African visit that inspired me to embark on what turned out to be a long anti-apartheid campaign, although that was not the original intention. It went on for about twenty years, and if I try to rationalise it now, I do so first in personal terms, because apartheid as a system appalled me, then because it seemed to me that apartheid could be defeated by dissemination of information about its true meaning. I had moved to the United States, where ignorance about apartheid was widespread, and where the government, beneath a veneer of disapproval, actually supported the white regime. So for me, the United States was the prime battleground. But there were strict limitations on access to my chosen medium, which was primarily television, for a debate on apartheid; during the period of apartheid up to the watershed year of 1976, I don't think there were a dozen documentaries dealing with apartheid shown on American television.

I began with Hello, from Swaziland (1974), a fifteen minute piece about interracial sex and gambling for white South Africans (such sins being forbidden in the Republic) in the neighbouring country, made for the prestigious CBS show Sixty Minutes. These I followed with White Laager (1976), a history of Afrikaner nationalism and Generations of Resistance (1978), a history of black resistance to white rule. Both of these were co-productions with the United Nations (condemnation of apartheid being about the only thing the UN members could agree on) and Swedish TV, where I had worked before. PBS Boston came in on White Laager, but not without writing an extensive critique that could have been equally composed by an Afrikaner Nationalist; even though it was post-1976, PBS abstained from participation in Generations of Resistance, and reneged on a promise to help finance South Africa: the Nuclear File (1979), the story of South Africa's acquisition of nuclear capability, which was largely backed by Swedish TV.

It is hard to credit now, but in the mid-eighties, Nelson Mandela had been dismissed by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher as a player in the South African political game. In an attempt to keep Mandela's name alive, I embarked on what turned out to be two biographies, Winnie Mandela (1986) and Remember Mandela! (1988). For the first, I received support again from the UN and from Swedish TV, but the second was essentially self-financed. I also put together a 21-panel exhibition of photo-collages on the life of Nelson Mandela. Both were shown at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta in 1988, the opening day of which coincided with Mandela's 70th birthday.

In response to the draconian censorship of the foreign press imposed in South Africa during the mid-eighties (to which American networks shamefully acceded), my partner Daniel Riesenfeld and I had the idea of doing a documentary on this subject, but we could arouse no financial support. …

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