Thursday, August 05, 2004

Amandla! How it was done

When filmmaker Lee Hirsch began working on his debut film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, he was well aware that the audio was going to play “a crucial role” in the final film. “I wanted every sound, every note and every voice to count, especially because of the subject matter,” he said, “and I didn’t want to compromise.”

Amandla! is a new documentary that takes as its background and context the long and bloody political struggle in South Africa over apartheid. “But it’s not a film about apartheid and the history of what went on,” cautions Hirsch. “It’s really about the music and the power of music, and how it can communicate, inspire, uplift, unite and change the world around us, and it’s music that drives the story.”

Winner of the Audience Award and Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Amandla! was directed by Hirsch and produced by Hirsch and Sherry Simpson. In mixing contemporary and historical footage, it tells the story of Black South African freedom music and reveals the central role it played in the long battle against apartheid. Threading the songs throughout the film, Amandla! covers 50 years of South African history and illustrates how resistance music grew and evolved in tandem with the fight for liberation.

The film itself also grew and evolved, notes Hirsch. “It began as a simple premise, to celebrate the power of song and look at the phenomenon of people in the streets singing these freedom songs, the grass-roots movement. But then it was natural to also include a lot of the legendary South African musicians and artists, and to then also look at the history of the struggle.”

After first visiting South Africa in 1992, Hirsch eventually moved there for several years, researching the project and “meeting and talking to anyone who’d listen,” he recalls. “Gradually I met a lot of the people who ended up in the film.”

The result is that world-renowned local musicians, including trumpeter Hugh Masekela, singer Miriam Makeba, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, offer their candid personal recollections, while archival footage captures the brutal arc of apartheid and the heroism of such leaders as Nelson Mandela, slain songwriter/activist Vuyisile Mini and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Sound recording in the field was done by Stu Deutsch. “He does sound for all of Spike Lee’s films and he’s very accomplished,” reported Hirsch. “And his passion is recording in the field, so the decision to have him come to South Africa was key as we walked out of there with really well-recorded audio. We also re-recorded and overdubbed a lot of the original material, such as the big Nelson Mandela finale, to beef up the audio. And all that was done in South Africa.”

The film brings dozens of freedom songs to the screen, drawing upon original recordings and impromptu live performances. After completing production in 2000, Hirsch and Simpson flew back to L.A. to start post. “We had all the audio tracks and all the original dialogue tracks, and as we began cutting some 200 hours of footage, I realized we needed something really special for sound design,” he recalled. “I wanted it to sound big and really capture the energy and spirit of the music.”

Despite having no budget, Hirsch decided to approach Skywalker Sound’s Gary Rydstrom, a seven-time Oscar winner and frequent collaborator with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. “To my utter amazement, after he’d seen some of the rough cuts he jumped on board — and then worked for free on all the sound design,” he reported. “And on top of that, Skywalker slashed their rates and basically made the whole thing possible.”

Rydstrom and supervising sound editor Al Nelson gradually built up the sound design over a couple of months, also working with music editor Kirk Denson, and “the resulting mix in Dolby Digital 5.1 is just amazing,” added Hirsch.

Hirsch, now 30, ultimately worked on his labor of love for over nine years. “I’m just so happy with the way the audio turned out,” he stressed. “It may just be a documentary, but it shows what you can achieve with a bit of luck and perseverance. Who could have predicted that Gary and Skywalker would become involved?”

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