More than a decade in the making, eight and a half hours long, featuring more than 100 talking heads, and spanning 42 years and four continents, Connie Field’s documentary on apartheid and its defeat is a triumph of maximalist filmmaking. And you won’t look at your watch once. Making its world premiere at Film Forum—and an excellent companion to Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid’s equally essential doc Long Night’s Journey Into Day (2000), which, examining the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, picks up where Have You Heard From Johannesburg ends—Field’s nonfiction epic is a monumental chronicle not just of one nation and its hideous regime, but of the second half of the 20th century.
The seven films that make up Johannesburg (which Film Forum has divided into three parts, each with separate admission) structure the chronology—tracing the years 1948, when apartheid was first instituted in South Africa, through 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison—around overarching themes. These include the tireless work of London-based ANC Deputy President in exile Oliver Tambo (whose significance, frequently overshadowed by Mandela’s outside of South Africa, is fully restored here), the indefatigable efforts to make South Africa a pariah in international sports (necessary background to the sanguine gloss of Invictus), and the indispensable contributions of African-American politicians and activists to ensure the passage of U.S. sanctions against S.A. in 1986, overcoming Reagan’s vehement opposition. Field’s scores of interviewees—black, white, fiery, subdued, colonized, colonizing—powerfully complement the abundance of archival footage, and vice versa (though not every editing decision is a wise one—the cross-cutting between the razing of mock shanties built as part of anti-apartheid protests on U.S. college campuses and real S.A. shanty towns is particularly misguided, and passionate reportage needn’t always be underlined with music).
To recapitulate the sprawling narrative of a wretched system and the forces, both national and international, that brought about its dismantling, Field, director of the docs The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) and (with Marilyn Mulford) Freedom on My Mind (1994), deftly toggles between the macro and the micro. Assessments of the geopolitics of the Cold War (the U.S. long considered the ANC “terrorists propped up by the Soviets”; Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 with the CIA’s help) and big-business interests are further illuminated by the thoughts and deeds, whether awe-inspiring or appalling, of activists, politicians, and titans of industry. In Johannesburg‘s vast accretion of anecdotes, history is indelibly etched. White-maned Conny Braam, an anti-apartheid activist in Amsterdam, recalls arranging floppy disks to be clandestinely transported between Mandela and Tambo via sympathetic KLM flight attendants. The former chair of Shell Oil defensively demands of his offscreen interviewer, “No holier than thou, please.” Archbishop Tutu remembers the reproach he delivered to Reagan: “Mr. President, your history is bad.” Dennis Brutus, the main architect of sports boycotts against South Africa, relays the words of the S.A. police after they arrested him: “We’re not going to handcuff you, because we’re hoping you’ll try to escape so we can kill you.”
As Johannesburg winds down, with footage of Mandela’s world tour and appearances before Congress and the U.N., elation mixes with dread. Speaking about the elections in 1994, the first for which blacks had the right to vote, anti-apartheid activist Murphy Morobe chuckles that the historical moment felt somewhat anticlimactic: “Just this little ballot—and what next?” Similarly—and this is to Field’s great credit—this feeling of what next? sets in immediately after her epic project ends. The horrors and hopes that have dominated South Africa’s post-apartheid legacy will also need to be told—and Field’s exemplary work suggests how.