SIFF Film Review – Under African Skies
Music is an amazing force. It is a universal language—no matter where you go in the world, the notes are still the same. One of the most profound examples of this in action was when Paul Simon recorded his Grammy award-winning record Graceland with a group of musicians from South Africa. Despite the fact that they were unable to communicate with their words, they created one of the most successful and influential albums of the last quarter century. The documentary Under African Skies follows Paul Simon as he returns to South Africa 25 years after he recorded Graceland, and looks back on the political stir he caused by breaking the cultural boycott imposed on the country by the UN during apartheid.
I must admit that my knowledge of Paul Simon is cursory at best, and was mostly related to his work in Simon & Garfunkel—and, even then, mostly limited to songs that were used in films like The Graduate. I wasn’t conscious of either the controversy over the Graceland album or the impact it had socially. The critical and commercial success is incredible, and it gives me a whole new appreciation for Simon. One of the most interesting aspect of him is his belief in supreme independence in music (and art), and that nothing, including political conflicts, should compromise an artist’s vision. And his arrogance and ignorance through this belief put him in the cross hairs of a lot of different groups over the album. Despite being a little short-sighted, this attitude is really an admirable trait.
Regardless of whether or not you support what Simon did, you have to give the man an immense amount of credit, both for his desire to work with these musicians from South Africa to spread their music worldwide, but also for his willingness to record while the conflict was raging over apartheid. Apartheid is one of the most shameful periods in world history, and thankfully the fight against it has left such a powerful mark that it will never be forgotten. It is fascinating to listen to Simon talk about the creative spirit in their recording sessions while also talking about his fear for his safety while recording in the middle of a war.
Director Joe Berlinger has established himself as one of the most provocative documentary filmmakers of the last fifteen years, tackling topics like environmental pollution (Crude), murder (Paradise Lost), and now apartheid. One of the most engaging parts of his work is his presentation of both sides of a conflict, and that is done exceptionally well here. He gives Simon the opportunity to address the criticism that he received after breaking the UN’s cultural boycott, but also addresses the perspective of the ANC (African National Congress), who argued that Simon’s work undercut their mission to end apartheid. There isn’t a simple answer as to who was right and who was wrong, and the film does a great job of leaving it up to the viewer to decide.
One of the major criticisms leveled against Simon was that he was a rich white musician taking advantage of the music for his own personal gain. It raises a question about the process of collaboration in general (and who deserves credit for what). One thing that there is no question about is how strong the friendship is between Paul Simon and the other musicians, and how quickly they fall right back into form when they prepare for their reunion concert that is occurring in South Africa. There is true love in their eyes despite being separated for two decades.
As much as I liked to see the reunion portion of the film, I was much more engaged by the discussion of the controversy over the album. There are a lot of interesting questions raised (did Simon undercut the ANC’s mission? Did he help them by bringing attention to the subject?) that were briefly presented, but no really heavy discussion. As well, a lot of fascinating interview subjects could’ve used some more screen time (Harry Belafonte, Dali Tambo). One of the most powerful subjects was Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid. He initially was a rival of Simon, but both of them have developed a mutual respect over time. It feels like their story alone could’ve filled a film.
Under African Skies feels like good introduction to this story, but leaves the feeling that there is more to be told. Perhaps it will be a story Berlinger continues, like his Paradise Lost series. Regardless, the film is an engaging portrait of the complex relationship between arts and politics during one of the most significant events of the last century. I want to learn more…so that much is a sign of success.
Under African Skies screens today at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.
Final Grade: B