Athol Fugard: Falls the Shadow…

Film maker Tony Palmer has made this terrific film about the playwright Athol Fugard.  Interviews with Fugard are spliced with extracts from his plays and archive footage of the events unfolding in South Africa at the time of their writing or performance.  The use of this archive footage makes for some poignant moments.  Steve Biko, for example, is shown talking about injustice, then we see photographs of his dead body after the Apartheid regime had finished with him.

Apartheid Prime Ministers, Vorwoerd and Vorster are included addressing crowds and justifying the cruel system they enjoyed.  It is important to be reminded that their political philosophy was once so powerful, and was supported by many in Britain.  Thatcher, while British Prime Minister, resisted economic sanctions against South Africa and viewed the ANC as a terrorist organisation.  The UK was a big investor in the country.

Throughout these years, Athol Fugard wrote powerful plays that highlighted the injustices and the effect the regime had on blacks and whites alike.  Excerpts from his most famous plays are shown, including: ‘Master Harold and the Boys’; ‘The Island’; ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’ and ‘Come to Mecca’.  The excerpt from ‘Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act’ is particularly powerful.

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The film reminds us that here were actors rehearsing and performing plays with the knowledge that they could be raided by the police at any time.  Actors could ‘disappear’ for long stretches.  Life could be very uncomfortable for white liberals and intolerable for blacks.

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Various artists, actors, writers and directors explain how Athol Fugard has influenced them.  Most important of all, though, we have Athol Fugard talking about the influences on his life and the key moments; he has lived through the dreadful Apartheid regime, through the dawn of a new South Africa and into a period of disillusionment with the current rulers.

‘Falls the Shadow…’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

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The Train Driver

Thinking about South Africa recently reminded me of this powerful play by South African writer Athol Fugard.  I saw it at the Hampstead Theatre, London in 2010.  It is the story of an Afrikaaner train-driver, Roelf, who is traumatised by the death of a black woman, hit by his train.

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He goes to the squatter camp to find her grave.  There he finds the poor black grave-digger and caretaker, Simon, who tends the graves.  Many of the dead are without names and the graves are marked with items of rubbish or discarded pieces of vehicles rather than crosses or religious motifs.  The explanation is simple.  Simon just needs to know where not to dig the next grave.

The play is close to a monologue as Roelf uses the mostly silent Simon as the listening ear to his story and his troubled conscience.

The play is based on a real event; a young black woman stepped in front of a train in Cape Flats, South Africa. She was holding her three young children as she did so.  They were all killed.  In that action, the desperate plight of many in South Africa is mirrored.  In Roelf, we see the guilt and self- absorption of white South Africa reflected as it moves out from under the cover of Apartheid.  Simon may be poor but it is Roelf who is suffering in this play.

In the production I saw Owen Sejake played Simon and Sean Wilson played Roelf.  On the evening of my visit to the Hampstead Theatre, Athol Fugard was also present and he took questions at the end.  That made it a special evening.

‘The Train Driver’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Harlem

I had no idea that this poem was called ‘Harlem’.  I thought the poem took the first line as a title.  It was certainly the title I knew it by.  However, here it is with its correct title.

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What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes
I first came across this poem when reading a book by inspirational educator, Jonathan Kozol.  He was a teacher in Boston, USA but was sacked from his job for using this poem with children.  He describes this incident in his 1967 book called ‘Death at an Early Age’.  The poem itself was first published in 1951.
‘Harlem’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Red Dust

Having enjoyed the novel, I was keen to see the film.  As it starred Chiwetel Ejiofor as Alex Mpondo, I was even more keen.  He is an exceptional actor.  Hilary Swank played Sarah Barcant so expectations were high.

Like many adaptations from novels, there is a lot of streamlining of the plot to give the story a single spine.  Some of the layers from the novel are lost.  In this case some of the back story of lawyer and activist Ben Hoffman is omitted, as is detail about Sarah’s time in the town and her relationships with people she knew when she was younger.  There is a whole strand of the book about Pieter Muller’s wife which does not make it into the film.  However, the central themes remain.  The cost of telling the truth remains a central issue and the repercussions for those who would rather forget the past is still central to the plot.  What the film does so well, is show the anguish on faces, both on tortured activist, Alex Mpondo, and on the torturer, Dirk Hendricks.  Actor Jamie Bartlett who plays Hendricks is excellent at showing something hidden just below the surface; should we trust this man or not?

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The beautiful scenery is also there to act as a back drop to the story of hatred.  Director Tom Hooper went on to make the hits ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘The Damned United’ but this, his first film as a director, has a lot of heart and no easy conclusions.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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Red Dust

‘Red Dust’ is not the first book by Gillian Slovo I’ve read.  I read the script of the play she wrote with Victoria Brittain about Guantanamo detainees and I read her novel, ‘An Honourable Man’.’Red Dust’, though, has been my favourite so far. It is a fictional account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as the new nation emerges from the Apartheid years.

BlogRedDustIt is set in a fictional town called Smitsrivier where anti-apartheid activist and lawyer, Ben Hoffman, calls his former protege home from New York so that she can lead the hearings where one time policeman Dirk Hendricks is applying for amnesty.  Ben is ill and can no longer take on cases of this weight but Sarah Barcant, his former pupil, has left South Africa for a new life.  Coming home at Ben’s request awakens memories of a society she was eager to leave.  Her past indiscretions have not been forgotten by those who once held power, even if they have less power than they used to and what was once illegal in South Africa is no longer a crime.

The town is waiting to see what Dirk Hendricks will disclose and who else will be implicated.  Pieter Muller the old police captain hovers around the edge of the hearing while Alex Mpondo, once young and in the struggle, agrees to return to his home town to assist in the hearings even though, for him, this means facing his torturer.

The unresolved issue for everyone is what happened to Alex’s good friend, Steve Sizela, son of the local teacher, or rather, where is his body since everyone believes he is dead.

The Truth and Reconciliation hearings were a brave attempt to reconcile South Africans to a violent past.  In trying to reach the truth, painful memories and inconvenient information surface.  How people shape the past and control the presentation of facts to suit a version of history is a background issue to this novel.

Gillian Slovo was born in South Africa but has lived in London since the 1960s.  Her parents were high profile anti-apartheid activists.  Her mother, Ruth First, was assassinated by the South African forces during the 80s. Knowing this makes the novel more powerful.  It is clear to see the purpose the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had for the nation emerging from a difficult past but it is less clear what the purpose was for some individuals.  Asking the question, was it worth it?, is one I was left with at the end of this important novel.

‘Red Dust’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

Beth Shalom: Sculpture

There are several sculptures in the grounds of the National Holocaust Centre (Beth Shalom). There were two which were of most interest to me.  The first is a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jewish people in the Second World War in Hungary.  After the war, he disappeared.  He was arrested by the Soviet government and never seen again.  The sculpture of a briefcase with the initials ‘RW’ is by Gustav Kraitz.

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The second sculpture is the Kindertransport memorial created by Flor Kent.  This statue of a young girl is the same as the one that was originally at Liverpool Street station in London.  Next to it was a glass cabinet with childhood artefacts.  They were replaced in 2006 with the Frank Meisler group sculpture.

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Beth Shalom: The Journey

I first learned of the Kindertransport many years ago when I visited the Jewish Museum.  At that time the museum was based on two sites, one in Camden, where the expanded site is now open, and one in Finchley.  I visited the Finchley site because they had an exhibition about Jewish children from Germany who travelled to Britain in the 1930s to escape the Nazi regime.  They had to come without their parents and they were only allowed to enter the country because volunteer groups and societies welcomed them.  Obviously, the transports ended when war broke out.

BlogTheJourneyWhen something makes such an impression, it enters the hinterland.  Ever since I saw that exhibition, I have wanted to know more about this significant undertaking.  I was pleased to discover that part of the National Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire has been given over to an exhibition about the Kindertransport.

What made the exhibition, called ‘The Journey’, so effective was that its audience is young people.  We follow the story of one boy, aged 10, through a series of ‘rooms’.  It starts in a German apartment room where we find out that the laws are affecting Jewish people and restricting their rights.  In the school room, we learn that Jewish children were ostracised and ridiculed by classmates and teachers.   There is a street scene where the Jewish businesses have been attacked and a damaged tailor’s shop daubed in paint.  Through the stages of this story we learn that the boy’s parents think it is best if he is sent away to safety in England and, just like thousands of others, he leaves his parents behind and starts a new life in Britain.

This is a powerful way to tell this story.  The National Holocaust Centre is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?