By any measure, the long-awaited release of Have You Heard from Johannesburg? shapes up to be one of the major documentary events of 2010. Connie Field’s massive eight-and-a-half-hour series about the global human rights campaign that impelled South Africa to abolish apartheid in the early ’90s is beyond ambitious, encompassing 135 interviews spanning five continents and acres of archival footage from a vast array of sources. Now, maybe every doc maker has a crisis of confidence somewhere in the course of his or her project, but Field set herself up for a double scoop of nail-biting moments. “I would wake up in the middle of the night asking myself, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’” the East Bay filmmaker confides. I believe that is what is called a rhetorical question.
After all, Field has been making documentaries for three decades. Classics of the genre, in fact, including The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) and the Academy Award-nominated Freedom on my Mind (with Marilyn Mulford, 1994). So she had demonstrated the force of will, not to mention the talent, to successfully wrestle a historical doc to completion. In this case, though, she leaped before she looked.
“I had no idea when I started how to properly conceive it as a story, and I conceived different arrangements of it,” Field recalls. “First it was four one-hour stories, then three two-hour stories, then 12 one-hour stories and now it’s down to seven one-hour stories–but three also have a feature-length version.”
Field began her research and made her first trip to South Africa in 1996, and that early jump proved crucial. She estimates that about 30 of her interview subjects have died in the ensuing years. Her arduous travel schedule included sojourns to Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, France and England. (In what passes for a light-hearted reminiscence, Field recalls, “I brought the Russians to England because during that time there were stories that you had to bribe Customs to get your equipment into Russia.”)
In every city, she spent her free time examining archival footage when she wasn’t taping interviews. That’s both the good news and the bad news, for it’s a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare–not to mention fiendishly expensive–clearing the multitude of rights on a project of this scope. Or as Field puts it, “We never know when we lock picture how long it’s going to take to get our archival material because it’s all over the world. It’s maddening. It’s an unbelievable morass.”
The veteran doc maker describes Have You Heard from Johannesburg? as an exercise in verit‚ history. “One thing about the process I realized [is that] as a filmmaker it’s extremely hard to do a historical subject that has never been written about because you have to spend so much time figuring out a) what the story is and b) how to tell it. I was never able to ever get any time to approach the subject in an innovative, filmic way. It’s too mammoth, and all my time was spent on how to tell the story, what things to present chronologically, what things to tell thematically. I had to have each story holistic in itself but connect up with a bigger story at the same time. So creatively that’s been frustrating, but also impossible to do other than what we did.”
“We” refers to her key collaborators, editor Gregory Scharpen and assistant editor and graphic artist Sage Brucia. “They started as interns and stuck so long they developed other skills,” Field explains. “As someone who all their life has worked with interns, this has been most valuable. I would be lost without them; now they know everything–and they’re the only ones [who do].”
As a not-so-incidental side note, the lack of an existing book detailing the history of the worldwide anti-apartheid movement had a deleterious effect on Field’s fundraising campaign. “I had thought I would be able to get international sources, which I wasn’t able to get,” Field reports. “Because the story hasn’t been told in another form, nobody had a context for the whole overall story.” Her fallback strategy was going back to sources that had supported her previous work, including the Ford Foundation.
To mark the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release, special or festival screenings of Have You Heard from Johannesburg? [took place on Feb. 11 all over the world]. Although this work will find the most eyeballs on television and in classrooms, those aren’t Field’s favored venues.
“I prefer being with audiences,” Field says. “It’s so extremely important for me that I’m getting opportunities for it to be shown, so people can see the whole thing and write about the whole thing. You can never make one of the parts as strong as the whole–or as strong as Freedom on my Mind, which was conceived as one film.” Along with the pressing desire that her work be seen and appreciated in toto, Field is motivated by a lesson she gleaned early in her career.
“A film gets written about differently if it’s in a theater,” she notes. “It gets written about more as a film than just as information.”
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