A first for South Africa: musical shot in township

February 02, 1992|By Rick Lyman | Rick Lyman,Knight-Ridder News Service

SOWETO, South Africa -- The white security troops in camouflage fatigues were phonies. So was the schoolteacher. That was Whoopi Goldberg.

But most of the students were real, sitting on the concrete stoops in their crisp, black-and-white uniforms. And the school where they were filming, from the spray-painted graffiti down to the burnt-out library -- that was as real as you can get.

"Sarafina!", the ebullient stage musical that grew out of the mbaqanga music of South Africa's townships to become a Broadway and worldwide phenomenon, is making its way to the screen -- here, behind a rectangle of rusty barbed-wire, with the chipped-brick, dust-cloaked homes of central Soweto spreading

into the hazy distance.

Besides being the largest and most important South African film production of recent years -- perhaps ever -- it is the first ever to be shot entirely in the black townships of South Africa.

"We're not quite sure what happened to the library," said Fida Attieh, a "Sarafina!" production executive. "Apparently, there was something of a small student uprising here a couple of months ago, and it got set on fire."

The charred shell sits on the edge of a weedy schoolyard, scraps of blackened schoolbooks spread through the rubble. Authentic graffiti festooned the walls: "Turn Shaka's Spear Against the Enemy!" "Mass Action for the Transfer of Power to the People!"

It certainly added something more than mere verisimilitude to what was otherwise an ordinary chaotic film set.

Director Darrell James Roodt squatted on a folding stool, a black cap pulled down tight across his silver hair, while assistant director Graham Hickson waved his bullhorn at schoolboys attempting to simulate a schoolyard soccer game.

"Come on! Come on!" Mr. Hickson shouted. "Run around! Kick the ball! Let's see some running out there!"

Cinematographer Mark Vincente peered through the lens as the boys energetically knocked the ball back and forth. A tall woman in a tank top and an orange bandana held the boom mike over the shot.

Mr. Roodt motioned to Leleti Khumalo, who plays the title role. "When I give you the signal, take a bite out of that piece of fruit," he said. "Remember, you are not looking at me. You're looking at your boyfriend, with love in your eyes." The other schoolgirls giggled.

The boys ran back and forth, the ball flew in and out of the shot, and Mr. Hickson frantically scampered around the periphery urging the players on.

"Now," Mr. Roodt said.

Ms. Khumalo raised the fruit to her lips. Chomp.

"Cut!" Mr. Roodt yelled.

Ah, the magic of moviemaking.

Other films that pretended to take place in the townships, from "Cry Freedom" to "A Dry White Season" -- were shot on makeshift sets, where a handful of shacks or hovels made do.

Nothing like the great, awful sprawl of Soweto has ever been seen on the screen, so "Sarafina!" producer Anant Singh has been making full use of his opportunity.

A crowd of 4,500 extras was recruited from nearby shanty communities to portray a group of demonstrators attacked by police. About 1,500 others were mourners at a mass funeral set in an actual Soweto cemetery.

"We had to go around with sound trucks for several days before the shooting to make sure people knew it wasn't a real demonstration or a real riot," Mr. Attieh said.

White actors playing security troops, driving in rented armored vehicles, stormed through the crowd. Thousands of curious spectators cheered the spectacle from the sidelines.

If anything, it was the filming of that event -- based on the Soweto students' uprising of 1976 -- that showed how far South Africa has come in relaxing its police controls and opening up to the outside world.

One of the reasons Richard Attenborough did not film "Cry Freedom" in Soweto was that the white government would never have allowed it. Now, two years into President F. W. de Klerk's reforms, with negotiations well under way with Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress (ANC), the authorities go so far as to provide assistance to a film production that depicts them as villains.

"There is no question -- this could not have happened a few years ago," Mr. Singh said.

Mr. Singh hopes to open the film at this spring's Cannes Film Festival. Discussions are under way with several U.S. studios for the distribution rights. He refused to reveal the size of the budget, except to say that "it's quite modest by Hollywood standards" and "keeps changing all the time."

But it's known that Ms. Goldberg accepted a mere fraction of her usual salary to take part in the production, in which she plays a liberal teacher who helps the young Sarafina make her way from innocence to political activism.

Ms. Goldberg has been keeping a very low profile during her South African sojourn, largely because of an uproar stirred up by the concurrent arrival of Paul Simon's "Born at the Right Time" tour.

Several small anti-apartheid groups objected to Mr. Simon's appearance, saying it was too soon to lift the so-called cultural boycott that has isolated South Africa for more than a decade. The ANC, however, approved Mr. Simon's visit, leading to an ugly tug of war that dragged on for weeks in the local media.

At one point, one of the groups "declared war" on Ms. Goldberg, but this was quickly put to rest after a series of closed-door meetings. Ms. Goldberg has responded by giving no interviews and by limiting the number of journalists allowed on the set.

(Filmmaker Spike Lee, who arrived a week ago in South Africa to begin two days of filming for his Malcolm X biography, contacted all of the groups before arriving and has been greeted with open arms.)

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