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Have You Heard From Johannesburg -- Film Review

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An exhaustive, if sometimes exhausting, history lesson about the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa, Connie Field's mammoth documentary is likely to be considered the definitive treatment of its powerful subject. Comprising seven individual films with a cumulative running time of more than 8 1/2 hours, "Have You Heard From Johannesburg" (the title comes from a Gil Scott-Heron song) naturally will find a more receptive home on television and home video, but New York's Film Forum, presenting it in three parts, is to be commended for giving the series its world theatrical premiere.

Field ("Rosie the Riveter," "Freedom on My Mind") maintains that the films can be seen individually and in no particular order, but there's no denying that they gain a cumulative power. And though some of the material is redundant and the pacing occasionally lags, the films mostly are thoroughly gripping in their examination of the heinous institution of apartheid, spanning its beginnings in 1948 to the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years.

Mandela has become the face of liberation in South Africa, but these films perform an essential service in restoring to prominence the reputation of Oliver Tambo, the African National Congress figure who led the fight while living in exile in London for nearly 30 years. Although this courageous man eventually was able to return to his home country, he died before seeing his former colleague elected as the South Africa's first black president.

The strongest sections are the first three -- "Road to Resistance," "Hell of a Job," "The New Generation" -- which detail in strong narrative fashion the establishment of apartheid by the South African government and the horrors that ensued, including such events as the Sharpeville massacre, the Soweto uprising and the murder of Stephen Biko. It also recounts the contributions of various figures around the world, such as Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and Bishop Trevor Huddleston, to the cause.

The subsequent films -- which separately deal with such issues as the role that sports played in the process, efforts by U.S. and British activists to pressure their governments to impose sanctions (vehemently opposed by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher respectively) and the campaigns to force corporations to divest their South African holdings -- are not quite as urgent if no less interesting.

The director combines archival footage with present-day talking heads to compelling effect, especially in the interviews with former South African governmental figures who continue to defend their country's former policies.

Opened: Wednesday, April 14 (Clarity Films)
Director-producer: Connie Field
Screenwriter: Jon Else
Directors of photography: Tom Hurwitz, David Forbes
Editors: Gregory Scharpen, Ken Schneider, Dawn Lodgson
Music: Marco D'Abbrosio, Todd Boekelheide
No rating, about 8 1/2 hours