A film about the musical and political atmosphere…

Making sense of South Africa’s past is a task that will never (and should never) end. There will always be disagreements about how the transition to democracy has been handled and how to approach the education of the freeborn who still live in the shadow of apartheid, whether they know it or not. ; but one medium that has proven effective in conveying an understanding of past atrocities is emotional and personal storytelling.

History textbooks and documentaries are obviously essential, but dates and statistics are rarely as moving as personal accounts of suffering. 1960 is a film determined to remember the Sharpeville Massacre, using an emotive lens that humanizes those who suffered in its wake and encourages empathy in its audience by personalizing the tragedy.

The period drama follows Lindi, a retired singer (clearly modeled and inspired by the South African icon Miriam Makeba) who breaks the isolation of his retirement to shed light on the murder of an apartheid-era police officer, Constable Kobus Bernard, when his remains end up in Sharpeville after 60 years.

Still from ‘1960’. Picture: provided

The film is split between scenes of young Lindi (played by Zandile Madliwa of The kissing booth) in the bustling jazz scene of Sophia Townand old Lindi (played by South African soap opera veteran Ivy Nkutha from Muvhango, isidingo and Generations) recounting his early life to the detective investigating the case.

The two periods are stylistically distinct – the current scenes were directed by Michael Mutombo (who worked on Harry’s game and District 9) and have an authenticity that is more reminiscent of a documentary than a drama. Nkutha gives a believable performance as an old Lindi, especially in her melancholic retelling of the story.

Interestingly, the two main characters in the current scenes hold positions of power – a detective in a handsome suit and a retired star living in the luxury of his private gambling lodge, but Lindi is still haunted by the trauma of her youth. , carrying a mixed message about progress and the hooks of apartheid’s legacy, deeply embedded in the national memory.

Still from '1960'.  Picture: provided
Still from ‘1960’. Picture: provided

The ’60s scenes, on the other hand, led by King Shaft (Uzalo and Skeem-Sam), are often overplayed, more akin to a theatrical production than a period drama or documentary. The secondary characters are the most culpable in this regard, especially the white ladies whose cringe-worthy lines are so brutal in their dismissive villainy that they fall flat every time.

Thankfully, the ’60s main cast is better, with an outstanding performance from Anele Matoti as Lindi’s love interest Thomas, whose cheeky smiles and natural demeanor soften what might otherwise have been stilted scenes.

1960 was co-written and co-produced by Bruce Retief, who is a musician first and foremost and composed the music for the film, with powerful numbers that pay homage to the greats of Sophiatown. The background music, which punctuates the scenes, is not always so successful, often too “on the nose” in its mirroring of events. The prime example of this is Constable Bernard’s ominous entry into the shebeen, gun in hand, throwing his weight in a revolting spectacle of intimidation – the kind that has often been recounted. In complete silence, as the victims would have experienced, this scene could have been impactful, but accompanied by dramatic music, it becomes unnecessarily over the top.

Still from '1960'.  Picture: provided
Still from ‘1960’. Picture: provided

It seems obvious that the film was aimed at a large, probably global audience – famous aspects of apartheid history are explained as if for the first time. This dilutes the power of the story – it seems overly cautious in depicting violence, romance and political content – but it also makes the film suitable to watch with young viewers, depicting personal experiences of oppression without the use of graphic content.

1960 works hard to recreate the energy and aesthetic of the era in its costume design and set, inhabited by characters whose suffering can be located and linked rather than immutable photographs in a textbook. While the acting often seems pushed and the treatment of apartheid atrocities a bit passive, 1960 seems to have been written with children and young adults in mind, and makes its message clear as the film draws to a close in a conversation between young detective Maseko and old Lindi.

Maseko addresses Lindi with deep respect, saying, “Talking with you made me realize that even though I knew the facts about my country’s history, I never really allowed them to enter. my heart.” She responds with wistful warmth, “Oh, my son, there are wounds in you that you can’t even see.” DM/ML

1960 is available via virtual screening on the Durban International Film Festival official site until July 30.

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