FEATURE LIST I
As ('rv Freedom. Sir Richard Attenborough‘s film charting the friendship between South African Black Concsiousness Leader Steve Biko and white journalist Donald Woods. opens in Scotland. Trevor Jolmston talks
— RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH
First the bear-hug. then a vigorous peck upon each cheek and a cry of ‘Daarlingli to rent the air. Sir Richard Attenlmrough. I mean Sir Dickie. is about to appear before me; the white-haired. hugely bespectacled heart-on-sleeve tnerchant who seems the living embodiment of the vain pompous mannerisms of a theatrical knight resistibly blended with the vain pompous verbiage of a veteran do-gooder.
Such an image of course errs on the Spitting Image side ofcruelty. but the idea of Attenborough turning after the safe and dogged historical platitudes of the well-meant but worthy (iandhi to the desperate situation in contemporary South Africa might be rather uncharitably viewed as the next move of an eager woolly white liberal dutifully hiring another issue of international concern from Rent-A-(‘ause The Indian novelist Salman Rushdie had dubbed him ‘Mahatma Dickie‘. so was he now about to become Bantu Mahatma Dickie'.’
No. he wasn’t. Meeting Attenborough. witnessing his obvious commitment at first hand. and seeing ( 'ry Freedom. a film with tnore political guts than we really might have anticipated. swiftly blew aside such preconceptions.
Although unashamedly a mainstream commercial picture. with its horrifying opening depicting the ransacking of a black squatter
‘A radical background‘
camp by the security forces and the final haunting reconstruction ofthe I976 Soweto massacre when armed police fired on schoolchildren mounting a peaceful protest. killing at least 400. ('r_\' Freedom is the first big-budget movie to dare to effectively come to terms with the dreadful horror of recent events in South Africa.
The film concentrates on the friendship between the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement. Steve Biko. perhaps the leading black activist of the Seventies. and white liberal journalist Donald Woods. the two respectively portrayed by Americans Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline. From his initial position of regarding Biko as a dangerous agitator. the narrative plots the course of Woods' re-education to the point when. after
to Attenborough and Valentine Lowe to Woods.
Biko’s death at the hands of the police. he is prepared to sacrifice his affluent lifestyle and undergo the risky mission to escape from South Africa himself. ()nly thus can he ensure the publication of his Biko biography. a book which is to display the fullest extent of the obscenity of the apartheid system and the Pretoria regime to the rest of the world.
Like Gandhi. (‘ry Freedom is a long-cherished Attenborough ambition fulfilled. ‘I come from a radicalbackground'. explains the ()4 year-old director. ‘My parents were early members of the Labour Party. they helped refugees from the Spanish (‘ivil War. and during the war they adopted two little Jewish girls who'd fled from (iermany. So with that kind offatnily life combined with my positon in the movie business. when the apartheid system began to filter through to our consciousness in the Fifties. l began. even though l was just an actor at that point. to commission screenplays to tackle the issues. Nothing ever came to fruition until 1983 however when Donald Woods. after seeing (iandhi I think. mailed me copies of his book on Biko and his autobiography Asking For Trouble. ’
“Time is running out‘
The Woods/Biko story satisfied Attenborough‘s two central criteria for a film about South Africa in a way that other treatments had not. ‘Firstly'. he says. ‘I had to find subject matter that works within its own time scale and which won't have its authenticity worn away by the three year schedule it takes to produce a major motion picture. Now the story of Biko alone is a depressing one. for without Donald he might have ended up just another dead body in a cell: but the story of the friendship between the two is one of moral commitment and integrity. In terms ofheroism. primarily. Biko is prepared all the time to risk his life for his beliefs. but in a secondary position admittedly Woods does suffer the chance ofarrest and lands in England with his family and £200 in his pocket.‘
Before making a firm commitment to Woods however. Attenborough made a visit to the troubled land to see for himself. ‘Knowing those two Jewish girls when I was much younger I learned from them of the horrifying nature ofoppression. but when I got to South Africa I was shattered by the similarity to Nazi Germany of those huge camps they herd the blacks into with the barbed wire and the searchlights surrounding them.’ Listening to the
man describe the events of his trip. which also included a precarious incident in a filling station toilet with a gang of drunken Afrikaaner youths. his being branded a card-carrying communist by state TV. meetings with Biko's widow and Winnie Mandela to seek permission and advice. and finally arousing the attention of the notorious security service black limos. you are suddenly aware of being in the presence of a gifted actor; his voice control and gesture brilliantly expressive. yet also indicative of the considerable effect these experiences seem to have had upon him.
‘Can‘t get any lower‘
Now convinced of the validity of the project. .»\ttenborough soon persuaded L'niversal Pictures to put tip the $20 million budget and hired Gandhiscreenwriter John Briley to transform Woods' material into a script. while at the satne time taking on the South African and his wife Wendy as principal consultants for the film's Zimbabwean shoot. Kevin Kline impressed in Hamlet in New York and was soon working hard with the man he was about to portray on screen to perfect the difficult Afrikaaner accent. Attenborough still expresses mild regret at being unable to cast a black South African as Biko. but after strenuously auditioning over ninety candidates who filled the age and height requirements (six feet plus) only the forceful presence of Denzel Washington (seen in TVs St Elsewhere) seemed possessed of the necessary acting ability.
Both leading players excel in the finished product now hitting our screens. Kline assuredly enlisting our sympathy during the later chase sequences. and Washington looking set for stardom after an authoritative perfomance as the late activist. The film has met criticsm for simplifying the political issues at stake. yet it could be claimed that in the light of its undoubted emotional impact and the power with which it communicates with the audience. this is churlish quibbling or at least that it is a pardonable failing. And
while the death of Biko at the half way point leaves the attention on Woods' escape attempt for the latter section. Attenborough does not pretend to have made the definitive Biko movie (‘that should be done by black Africans’). but instead has created a courageous and forthright epic.
‘I obviously wish (fry Freedom to persuade people to unequivocally
condemn the apartheid system in South Africa. for unless it is eroded away there will be a holocaust. Time is running out. Sanctions may not be the perfect answer. but we have to do something to demonstrate our abhorrence. To talk. in the way out' Prime Minister does. about sanctions harming the black population. is simply untenable —~ go to South Africa. go to the settlements. see a mother and father and child living in a hole in the ground with only a sheet of plastic to cover them. with no hope ol'earning a living and no freedom to go anywhere else because those people just can’t get any lower.‘
(‘ry Freer/inn opens in (ilasgon‘ and lidinlnirgh cinemas on l."./an. See Film Listings.
('ry Freedom. the olf/ii'ial tie-in noveli:atiim liv sereen writerJo/tn Briley. l’enguin. [2.95. Filming Hit/i Attenborough. Donald ll'ooilx' account ofthe maA ing ofthe lilm. Penguin. [4.95. [fl/xi) andxts/xing For Trouble. the original souree material for they/i/m by Donald Hoods, l’enguin. [4. 95.
10The List 8—21 January 19