The popular memory of sophiatown, the first black urban area in South Africa to be bulldozed for whites under the Group Areas Act.
"Freedom Square" refers to the square in Kliptown (although one also existed in Sophiatown) where the Freedom Charter, subsequently adopted by the African National Congress (ANC) was drawn up at a mass gathering in 1955. "Back of the Moon" was a shebeen (speakeasy) in Sophiatown where journalists and artists drank and talked. Sophiatown was an overcrowded black freehold area abutting Johannesburg. The film is a testament to a community forcibly moved to Meadowlands, Soweto, in spite of resistance from its residents.
Freedom Square is about the popular memory of Sophiatown of the generation that lost it. It is about romantic memories reconstructed thirty years later by the people who once lived there. As a popular memory, the film has merit. As history, it does not. But as a memory of history, Freedom Square opens up a variety of historiographic questions. It also raises the perplexing problem of how to represent history on film or video.
Historical events are shown in the form of newspaper cuttings, newsphotos and newsfilm. Patronizing Movietone and Visnews clips of Hendrik Verwoerd and other National Party spokesmen provide ironical glimpses of apartheid ideology as they speak `for' the people they have dispossessed. Verwoerd tells us that "apartheid" has been misunderstood, that it's really a policy of "good neighbourliness" - a claim still being made by PW Botha at the end of the 1980s. A member of Parliament claims that blacks don't oppose apartheid - only agitators do. Shots of Triomph (Triumph) follow. Triomph replaced Sophiatown as a white Afrikaner suburb of Johannesburg after its former black owners had been forcibly removed. The cynicism of naming the area `Triumph' was not lost on those forced out of their homes.
The black interviewees- ex-gangsters, journalists, truck drivers, lawyers and gamblers - do not talk about politics in the film. They do not mention the squalid conditions of Sophiatown, Nor resistance by its inhabitants to removal. Neither do they address broader structural questions on the nature of apartheid other than describing Sophiatown as a `black spot' threatening "a pure white cancer". The film does show news footage of resistance and protest but does not unravel how this came about, how it was organized or the failure of the African National Congress to prevent the removals.
The interviewees wanted to, and did, talk about gangs, gangsters, and gangster movies. In the pre-television era, movie-going was very popular and a way of momentarily escaping from the slum environment. The people interviewed talked about the myth of Sophiatown, rather than Sophiatown itself, or how the myth was made. Indeed, they were partly the makers of the myth through their recently published novels, a play script, and other forms of creative expression.
Gibson and Kentridge had intended to make a documentary. But the result is a documentary intertwined with narrative codes. Freedom Square draws on television address for interviews, lit with a style emulating film noir, to connote the mystery and romanticism of gangs and gangsterism. The film noir genre of the 1940s was vividly remembered by the interviewees, who often drew their gang names from films, for example, `the Americans' who wore "zoot suits", `the Gestapo' and so on. Shebeen names also came from American movies or songs.
The `good'-`bad' film noir dichotomy is, however, inverted. The good guys in the film- the gangsters -were the `bad' guys of the time. A flick-knife thug of the 1940s who modeled himself after Humphrey Bogart is now a preacher. This `good-bad' sign inversion occurs because gangsterism was one way of coping with the slum conditions under which people found themselves living in Sophiatown. In hindsight, it was a positive response to a negative situation - even if the effects on non-gangsters was often violent. Other codes used are theatrical - the re-creation of Sophiatown life through incorporating scenes from the play entitled Sophiatown , workshopped by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company. The result is a dramatized marriage of the signs and codes of `reality' (documentary) and `fiction' (drama). Some interviewees were stage `performers,' interacting with the real life performers- the interviewees - creating a metonymic relationship to a reality that has lived on in myth rather than in actuality. The interviewees provided the continuity between the two styles-documentary and the dramatic enactment.
The film, then, is unambiguously about the contemporary myth of Sophiatown that has been salvaged from the state's destruction of this community thirty years ago. The signs and codes of lighting, clothing, mis-en-scene, framing and structure constantly remind viewers of their structured relationship to a long gone reality. The closing shots, for example, intercut between monochrome newsfilm of a demolished Sophiatown and shots of the actors striking the background sets of the play, still lit in film noir style. These are the same sets that backgrounded all the interviewees, whether in Johannesburg, London or Lusaka. Through this understated reflexivity, Freedom Square becomes a refreshing example through which South African film makers are beginning to develop popular styles which reflect the real and imagined contexts of their subjects. The film responds organically to aesthetics intrinsic to the, if now displaced memory of, historical conjunctures, and translates these in a way which makes sense to contemporary audiences which were both part of, or not part of, the situations being recalled.
Unlike so many South African documentaries where the omnipresent `Voice of God' relates the `truth', Freedom Square allows the narrative to develop through its interviewees, and through re- creating the atmosphere of the times by inserting original footage from Come Back Africa (1959) and Magic Garden (1961), and from Drum magazine photographs and newsfilm footage. It is a great pity that copyright clearance for an earlier film, African Jim (1949) could not be obtained because of the disappearance of the copyright holder. African Jim contains irreplaceable footage of the famous Jazz Maniacs and the clubs in which they played.
The film makers had wanted Freedom Square to speak about political mobilization. But they eventually accepted that politics was not part of the popular memory of Sophiatown. The romance was preferred. So the film's makers responded to this memory, itself split as if through a prism, depending on who was remembering what. The film could be accused of not contextualising the less than romantic processes which brought Sophiatown into being, and of reductively compacting complex history with the opening statement: "(Sophiatown's) jazz, journalism, ANC politics, and proximity to the white suburbs singled it out as a target for the newly elected Nationalist government". Cause and effect are not examined, and neither are historical processes. The emotional closing by ex-gangster, now poet, Don Mattera, encodes resistance: "(The Boers) haven't won ... they will never win - not while men have memories; not while men can write down". But this emotion which threads through the film invites us to forget the destruction of Sophiatown, and what it did to its people. But, as I have already argued, the film is not an explanation of history but a document on how some have remembered it.
Some critics have commented on the pivotal interview roles played by Bishop Trevor Huddleston, who founded the British anti- apartheid movement, and journalist Anthony Sampson. The narrative comes back time and again during the first half of the film to Huddleston's contextualisation of events in Sophiatown, where he ministered, and to Sampson in the second half of the film, as he reads from his books on the era. These two long standing ant-apartheid campaigners, both living in London, become the main narrators by default. Though this gives the impression of a `white' interpretation, this was not the film makers' intention. Huddleston and Sampson were sufficiently distanced from their experiences in Sophiatown to offer the background, and describe the processes against which the popular memory of its former inhabitants was encoded.
Nadine Gordimer is intercut with scenes from Come Back Africa as she comments on the excessive drinking that eventually killed journalist Can Themba, who is seen and heard in Come Back Africa inserts. Gordimer concluded that liquor made cross-racial contact easier. But this was done in shebeens rather than on the political terrain. The headiness of the Sophiatown atmosphere and cultures of resistance were not easily extended into a structurally damaging political opposition to the apartheid state.
The makers of Freedom Square and Back of the Moon had attempted to recuperate images of struggle, resistance and popular culture from an historical urban experience which was pivotal to the resurgence of Charterist politics in the '80s. But Sophiatown's people had passed on. And the ANC had been unable to prevent dispossession or sustain Sophiatown's vibrant, smoky culture which arose with the criss-crossing workers and intellectuals, migrants and journalists, gangsters and politicians, who drank and talked and wrote and lived their experiences of apartheid in the cities. The history of removal is always painful, but the history of romance is not. The film is perhaps a testimony, then, to an era whose symbolism is more important in forging a democratic future than was Sophiatown's actual history. In mobilizing against dominant myths, counter-myths emerge and build in popular credibility until, in tandem with nationally unfolding processes of resistance, they overwhelm them. Triomph may exist in the concrete, but Sophiatown lives on in memory, itself given form in films, poetry autobiographies, plays and novels. And the memory will outlast apartheid.