Media Matters


Cry Freedom

An Essay by Christine Findlay



Cry Freedom manifests characteristics from several genres but one might describe it as a dramatised political documentary exhibiting some of the conventions of film biography - already seen very effectively in Ghandi - and the political spy thriller. Sir Richard Attenborough has based the film on real life characters, principally Steve Biko and white South African editor, Donald Woods. He uses this factual base to fulfill two main purposes: firstly, to tell a story of the relationship between Steve Biko, banned political activist, and Donald Woods: secondly, to make a statement about the dominant political ideology of white South Africa (as it appeared at this period) and to present us with an oppositional ideology which we are being very clearly invited to acknowledge in a sympathetic manner. The narrative structure adopted by the director is clearly classical in nature but employing flashback techniques to rearrange the chronological sequence of events. The actual historical period covered by the film spans three years but is selectively telescoped into under three hours of film.

Thus the film opens with scenes from the raid on Crossroads squatters' camp in 1975, moves to the meeting between Biko and Woods in 1975, then jumps forward to Biko's arrest and subsequent death on 12th September, 1977. This then is followed by Woods decision to force an inquest into Biko's death and his realisation of the need to escape to England to tell Biko's story in print. Flashback is used to take us back to the result of the actual inquest before we see Woods and his family escaping in January, 1978. The film closes with the powerful flashback to the Soweto Uprising which began 2 years earlier on 1 6th June, 1976. Attenborough has maximised on the film's dramatic impact by structuring the narrative in this way so that the audience is assaulted with the Crossroads imagery at the beginning and returns full circle at the end to the nightmarish images of Soweto.

The opening is classical in convention in that enigmas are immediately set up through both aural and visual cues. For example, the first peaceful images are shattered by roaring sounds, then by the view of the huge police vehicles seen through a superimposed image of a telescopic gunsight. Suddenly credits are fired at the audience as telex messages. These key cues prompt questions about who these people are and about what is going on. Why have these apparently innocent people, some still sleeping in the early dawn, been so cruelly assaulted by the police? What have they done to have their homes razed to the ground by monolithic-like buIIdozers? Thereafter several strands of conflict move the narrative on: conflict between Biko and the white government: initial conflict between Woods and Biko's political stance: conflict between Woods and the government/police authorities: temporary conflict between Woods and his wife etcetera.

Solutions to these conflicts are worked out throughout the film, tragically in the form of Biko's death, then more hopefully in the escape of the Woods family to Britain with documented evidence of the true account of the circumstances surrounding Biko's death. The major conflict, however, between the black South African population and the ruling white South African government is not resolved as the long list of prison deaths that roll over the closing frame indicates all too painfully. The fact that the political situation has now changed with Nelson Mandela's release and the subsequent dismantling of the framework of apartheid provides a more positive postscript to the film which may, in itself, have played a part in changing entrenched attitudes despite its being banned from South African screens.

The internal structure of the film develops along two main parallel narrative strands: Biko, his activities and his attempts to evade capture and Donald Woods's activities and his attempts to escape police detection. This second strand subdivides into plotting the course of Wendy Woods's and the children's escape to meet up with Donald. There is a kind of Shakespearean pattern to these parallel plots, one acting as a foil to the other as we judge Donald Woods's reaction to finding himself a banned person in the light of how we have seen Steve Biko reacting to a similar set of circumstances. The use of the "chase" device within the structure and its attendant deadlines heightens suspense and pushes the narrative on at an exciting pace. This particular narrative technique reminds one of the war film where we are always aware of the enemy and of the influences of chance and timing in determining the outcome. Attenborough's use of this technique contributes greatly to extending the appeal of the film which could have found itself with a narrower audience had it concentrated exclusively on the political debate.

The narrative is effectively conveyed using a variety of technical skills. Filming techniques are in evidence at the very beginning when the opening images are filmed in a dawn light, creating a black and white effect which changes to blue light as the dawn advances. The first frame of a man shaving outdoors suggests peaceful normality: this is followed by a wide angled frame in which a man's face is in profile in the left hand bottom corner of the frame, in shallow focus, while in the distance the clearly recognisable outline of Table Mountain can be seen. This shot is an establishing shot where setting is being clearly indicated. A medium close up of two black children sleeping side by side invites the audience to feel at peace. But there is a sinister alarm sounded when the credits are fired across the screen, telex style in small lettering. The size of the lettering, coupled with the method of its appearance on screen suggests a lack of starring roles: the story and the characters are going to be the important elements here, not star names.

Photo-journalistic techniques are simulated in the following opening frames - the staggered zoom into the approaching vehicles and into close ups of individuals caught up in this raid, particularly that of the screaming baby. The superimposed image of the telescopic sight heightens the drama and immediacy of the attack, giving it an authentic feel: we are being alerted to the factual nature of this event. The fast mix of match cutting and cross cutting that ensues helps to create an air of chaos and panic. Violent images are cross cut very swiftly to convey their message without suggesting any sense of vicarious indulgence. Freeze framing is used at intervals throughout the film; for example, the advancing police truck or the still frame of Biko's face when he is being taken unconscious from the police cell into the truck. This technique drills key images into our brain, ensuring that certain signals of a central message are being received by the audience. It also helps to authenticate these images, placing them firmly on a factual plane.

Camera angles, likewise, help to establish an attitude; for example, when the black Dr. Rampeli first appears, Woods is seated and the camera tilts upwards to her, giving her a surprising position of authority - surprising because the code is already telling us that black people are regarded as inferior (the tea boy/message boy in the newspaper office is black; Woods's maid, Evelyn, is black) is seen quite clearly when the police come to harrass Wood's maid, the camera shoots this scene from above looking down a short flight of stairs. Evelyn's fear and vulnerability are enhanced by this approach. When Biko is first arrested for speaking at the football match/political rally, Captain De Wet is filmed with the camera tilting upwards, giving him an ugly power. This moves into an extreme close up when De Wet moves to threaten Biko with physical force and calls him "kaffir". Low camera angles are used very effectively inside the prison to focus in close up on the marching police boots. This angle heightens tension and intensifies the ominous echo of their bootfalls. The director places the camera carefully to establish viewpoint. For example, when Biko has indicated that he must go to address students in Cape Town, the camera films Dr. Rampeli from behind to suggest her resistance to this idea or when the Soweto riot is being filmed at the end of the picture, the camera moves from an elevated position behind the children, giving their view of the approaching obstacle of the police, the good natured strength of the multitude against the armed and grim faced few, then switches to a position behind the police to establish their view of the advancing children. This change of viewpoint dramatically conveys the two sides of the narrative and underlines the contrasting moods. Similarly the use of the shot/reverse/shot can be a very effective device in juxtaposing viewpoints; for example, when Woods is visiting the shabeen with Biko, where drinking and dancing are going on, Woods catches the eye of the old black woman Iying on an inner bed where she looks lonely, ill and suffering. The camera starts with a medium close up of Woods, cuts to a medium shot of the old woman whose eyes are lit from the side so that they become the focal point, then back to Woods to register his reaction. Her pain and suffering seem to be there as reminders of the reality when a temporary veil has been drawn over it by the intoxicating effects of music and alcohol.

The wide angled shot, coupled with the aerial shot, are used to give us information about the landscape, particularly where the white man's view of that landscape is being emphasised. For example, our first view of Donald Woods's house and garden comes in a wide angled tracking shot, where we track Wendy Woods down garden steps, across spacious lawns to the swimming pool. Here the contrast between the confined landscapes of Soweto and the airy luxuriance of the white man's domestic world is shockingly juxtaposed. Similarly when Woods visits Kruger, the Minister of Justice, at his home, the camera tracks along a row of brilliantly coloured tropical creepers, then opens out to a wide shot of the vast expanse of lawn that fronts the magnificent Dutch Style dwelling. The camera then moves in with Woods to the meeting with Kruger, who emerges deceptively from the side of the house, all the time allowing the viewer to establish details of setting. Once inside the house, there is a magnificent shot when Kruger opens the patio doors to a long shot, moving into a wide angled shot of the view from his house; mountains, rolling landscape, lush green lawns and colourful flora. Again, on the beach, the camera is conveying a white man's landscape in the long shots from above of mile upon mile of white sands and rolling surf. The film ends with some wonderful aerial shots of the African landscape as the Woods escape in a small, vulnerable looking aircraft. These closing shots capture the feel of the spaciousness and geographical variety that stand as an ironic symbol of apartheid where the black man is confined to squalid, overcrowded townships while the white man enjoys the luxury of an outdoor life full of light, colour and space.

Framing also helps to convey certain messages; for example, the central framing of Woods in his office establishes his importance and authority. When Biko and Woods first meet, Woods is in the left hand side of the frame, then there's a window in between and Biko is in the right hand side, emphasising the gap that still remains between them at this early stage in their relationship: they shake hands across a large space. In the trial scene, Biko is filmed in a kind of pulpit-like structure so that the camera tilts up to him, looking down on the judge who is in the middle and to the prosecutor who is on the other side of the frame, a positioning which emphasises the triangular relationship of this power struggle.

Mise-en-scene
Framing not only allows us to read the significance of and attitudes of characters but also directs us towards the codes being set down in the mise-en-scene. For example, when Biko is Iying unconscious in prison, the whole focus of our attention is on the naked figure Iying on a stone floor, caged like an animal. Nothing else intrudes into the frame; it is what is left out of the mise-en-scene that is important here - no extraneous and distracting detail, nothing to alleviate the literally naked power of the image. The very low level lighting works with the mise-en-scene to enclose this scene in a highly dramatic manner. The markedly contrasting use of mise-en-scene within the Woods house on New Year's eve where the lounge is a very comfortable room, expensively furnished, complete with piano, television set and decorative ornaments, captures the easy lifestyle which they have, in part, chosen to abandon. The interior of Kruger's house takes this idea of comfort one step further with its lavish furnishings that suggest a history of gracious living that has been passed from one generation to the next. The furniture is old, solid and entrenched in its setting, much like the Afrikaaner residents that inhabit the house. The mise-en-scene within the black dwellings, on the other hand, is spartan in comparison; simple wooden table and chairs dominate the set and around these a cluttered scene suggesting cramped living conditions.

Montage
This narrative could have been told in an infinite number of ways, depending on the director's choice of montage and editing techniques. The opening sequence of the film is a good illustration of how carefully constructed montage works. The dreamy, peaceful dawn sequences are followed by a number of fast cut, noisy, chaotic sequences which, in turn, give way to the sleepy awakening of Dr. Rampeli, then match cutting back to the aftermath of Crossroads. These frames have been carefully sequenced to build atmosphere, pose narrative possibilities and balance pace. In order to illustrate the two parallel events that are taking place - Donald Wood's night journey to his rendezvous point and his family's morning journey to the "beach" (in fact, to Wendy Woods's parents) - match cutting is used regularly; for example, when Donald Woods arrives on New Year's eve in a small town, Auld Lang Syne is being sung, then we cut to the Woods's house and the family is awaiting the count down to the New Year before they too sing Auld Lang Syne. Here, then, an aural link helps to convey the idea of parallel events. Another example of a match cut linked aurally would be when we go from Crossroads to Dr. Rampeli's radio and hear a report on the night's events. The verbal link helps to establish time having past so that we can return to Crossroads at a later stage with a sense of continuity of time.

Lighting
Lighting is likewise a vital tool in creating atmosphere and cuing an audience's reactions. For example, the opening lighting of the shadowy half light of dawn creates a black and white image, colours which are themselves symbolic. This black and white effect persists through the images of the approaching police vehicles, suggesting the colour of newspaper print. Much of the film is shot externally so that the bright, sunlit areas of white gardens and open landscape are sharp and clear in contrast to the nighttime visit that Biko takes Woods on when street lighting from above is used to convey black shadows and a flat, bleached look to Woods's lit face as he passes under a light. Biko's black face remains in shadow as though emphasising that this is his natural camouflage. In this scene, a young child's eyes are lit from the side in close up to capture his fear. Inside the shabeen the light is harsh, unnatural and garish. In contrast, the internal lighting in Woods's house is bright, warm and cheerful, particularly on New Year's eve or when Donald Woods is telling his children about his trial. In the courtroom, Biko is lit from behind and from the left hand side, creating a halo effect. Perhaps one of the most powerful uses of light is in the shots which capture the first meeting between Biko and Woods when the camera breaks a general technical rule and shoots directly into the sun but through the swaying branches of a weeping willow tree. The fractured light breaks through the tree from behind which Biko steps, saviour-like, caught in a shaft of golden light which blinds Woods. Light is being used here to create a powerful icon. Darkness is used very effectively as a symbol throughout the film - a darkness which is suddenly penetrated by the sharp glare of car headlights or torches; for example when Crossroads is raided or when Woods meets up with the black minister who is helping him to escape. This contrast between dark, confined places and brightly lit space of the natural landscape is used to reinforce the powerful message of inequality Lighting is complemented by sound, particularly music and dialogue, which also assists in reinforcing the ideology of the film.

Sound
The film opens with a black screen and the sounds of cicadas and other noises associated with a tropical country. There is an eerie expectancy in this soundtrack. Then we hear voices speaking in what most people would recognise as an African tongue, in this case a Bantu dialect with its distinctive clicking sounds. This is followed by peaceful early morning images which, in turn, are followed by a threatening, loud, rumbling sound whose source the audience does not see until a few seconds after the harsh, metallic sound of the telex-type credits and the clicking sound accompanying the photo-journalistic shots of the looming trucks induces a feeling of fear and alarm. The latter changes to horrified confusion when a plethora of sounds accompanies images of assault; running feet, smashing glass, shrieks, screams, angry orders being shouted, a baby wailing, the roaring din from the destructive trucks - all these create a feeling of chaos and panic. This scene cuts immediately to initial, stunning silence before we see Dr. Rampeli slowly awakening. She switches on the radio which gives a report on the events we have just witnessed. The bias of this particular medium is clearly highlighted when the announcer indicates that "no resistance" was met. We then cut back to Crossroads where images of a razed landscape are accompanied by the deep-throated rhythmic sounds of singing African voices which convey a plaintive note of suffering. Music plays a very important role in the film; there seem to be three different principal musical motifs, one suggesting pain and suffering, one suggesting tension and danger, the last conveying national pride and victory. For example, when Biko takes Woods into the township at night, the tense strings and the insistent drumbeat reflect the danger that Biko talks of. But when Woods becomes "converted" to Biko's philosophy the swelling voices of the African chorus accompany him as if to underline his empathy with the "cause". Again when firstly Woods, then his family make it across the bridge to freedom, the swelling sounds of the triumphant motif are heard. Finally it is heard as the aircraft crosses safely into "friendly" airspace, and the closing list of dead prisoners rolls to the accompaniment of the African Anthem Perhaps the most moving use of music, however, is at Biko's funeral when the African Anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' i Afrika , is sung unaccompanied by the mass of mourners. Attenborough has used the wonderful natural ear for harmony that Africans have to powerful effect.

Dialogue
It is through the sound of dialogue, however, that the film's potent themes are revealed. In our first meeting with Donald Woods, his liberal, anti-government stance is made clear when he says he wants "the police blamed for that raid", referring to Crossroads. But also stressed are the ideological differences between himself and Biko. He sees the latter as adopting a dangerous, extremist stance - " some black nutcase" talking of "black supremacy" and advocating "black consciousness". Once Dr. Rampeli enters the scene, this stance is further underlined when he refers to Biko as a "sensationalist pushing black prejudice" and accusing him of "building a wall of black hatred". Dr. Rampeli defends Biko whom we have not met as yet, accusing Woods of "putting words in his (Biko's) mouth". A sense of bitterness at the injustices meted out by a white government comes across in her reference to her education as a "token of your white paternalistic concern". In these two scenes, therefore, the dialogue has carefully established two rather imbalanced viewpoints - Woods who thinks Biko is racist and Rampeli who seems to be damning all whites. It is through the powerful use of dialogue that these imbalances are seen to correct themselves. Much of the background to Biko's own philosophy is given while "on the move" - for example, when he is conducting Woods round the "centre" and its gardens that Biko has helped to establish. Attenborough has been wise enough to realise that this kind of informative dialogue would tend to be lost in a static setting. But as it is, there are visual images to absorb while the dialogue runs. The gap between the two men is captured very effectively by placing one on either side of a path, across which they attempt to communicate. The reasons for the black man's sense of injustice are explained very powerfully when the two men walk through the squalid, narrow streets of a black township. Biko explains the disadvantages of being a black child when he says: "Smart or dumb, you're born into this and smart or dumb, you'll die in it." But the full power of Biko's persuasive oratory comes across most keenly at the football match and, in particular, in the dramatic setting of the courtroom where the actual words spoken are taken from a transcript of the real trial. His explanation of "black consciousness" has power and reason when he explains that "black has always had negative connotations - black sheep - " etcetera. It is Biko's words that dominate the film, despite the fact that the man disappears from the film at a relatively early point. We return to them in the latter part of the narrative in the form of flashbacks when Donald Woods remembers key statements like: "Just say that justice will be done. Let's hope it will not be visited on the innocent."

Hard-line, right wing ideology is also represented in dialogue, particularly in the way in which Kruger, the Minister for Justice, is heard speaking, on the one hand, in a sympathetic manner to Woods, promising an investigation into the police role in the raid on the community centre because he says, "I want no thugs in my police force" and, on the other, callously stating to his audience, "So Biko's death leaves me cold" and ,"They (meaning people like Biko) have a democratic right to starve themselves." (The official explanation for Biko's death at this time was given as death resulting from a hunger strike.) With a chilling attempt at black humour, Kruger adds, "I suppose I would feel sorry for my own death." The policeman, Captain De Wet, reinforces this standpoint in the way in which he addresses Biko after his arrest at the football stadium, calling him "kaffir" - a derogatory term used by whites when insulting blacks, particularly black workers. There is also an attempt to lighten the tone occasionally through the use of humorous dialogue; for example, when Biko's wife says to him, I'm glad I wasn't your mother" or, having managed to fool the police in a house search, she pats her baby's nappy where incriminating papers have been hidden and says with a wry smile, "I think we should get these out of here!" Donald Woods also helps to release tension at times through humorous exchanges; for example, when, disguised as a priest, he swears volubly at some children chasing the truck in which he is escaping and then says,"l suppose I'll have to do penance for that." The old man who helps Donald to reach the Telle bridge also contributes some lighter notes when he explodes in a fit of mirth at the very idea of this white editor escaping with incriminating evidence against the South African government. He bursts out, "Kruger will shit himself - Boethe will shit himself," laughing helplessly at his part in the drama. Dialogue, therefore, is central to the film, informing, persuading, creating and defusing tension.

Symbolism
In a film as dramatically powerful as Cry Freedom , it is not surprising to find a number of key symbols appearing. For example, the beautiful wide angled shot of the flock of birds rising from the rich brown and green of the African veld has a number of symbolic connotations: flight, itself, hope, escape, freedom etcetera. The white Mercedes belonging to Donald Woods, his garden pool, Kruger's imposing house - all are powerful symbols of white affluence. Even the deserted beach seems to symbolise the irony of a white population representing 15% of the total South African population monopolising 87% of the land and its natural resources, such as beaches and its coastal waters. Other symbols include the close up of the shackled hands, fists clenched in defiance, that are carved into the lid of Biko's coffin; the close up of the dead Steve Biko's feet and the attached identity ticket, symbolising his apparent worthlessness - a mere object to be labelled; the close up of the padlocked gates that guard the Telle bridge; the bridge itself, spanning a river that separates and divides peoples; the heavy rains that symbolise both destruction and regeneration and that closing image of the list of prisoners and their fates that rolls up like a powerful accusatory symbol of all that is inhumane and evil in mankind.



Representation
The characters themselves are perhaps the most important symbols; Biko, the saviour-like figure, sitting amidst his "disciples" after the rugby match, preaching his gospel; Woods, the intelligent, compassionate and courageous individual fighting a corrupt system, symbolising the strength of man's spirit and his capacity for sacrifice. This appears to be how the key participants are represented. But what of other representations? Other blacks are represented in a very sympathetic light - perhaps even idealised; they are seen as intelligent, wise, good humoured and proud of their racial history. The black minister/priest who risks his own life to help Woods escape, the wise, good humoured old man who drives his battered car to the Telle bridge, Woods's maid, Evelyn who expresses genuine affection for the children and goes about her work with dignity and willingness of spirit, the black journalist, Mapetu who loses his life trying to establish the truth to print in Woods's newspaper - all these images suggest a very sympathetic representation. The only negative image of black people we have is of black policemen whom we are intended to see as having been corrupted by the white system, allowing themselves to be exploited by the white man to impose white-made laws on their fellow black men. Apart from the Woods family, the only other white people who appear are a fellow journalist/photographer who is also seen as a sympathetic liberal, a token white woman at the funeral and the police who are linked to Kruger, the Minister for Justice.

Representations of the police are typified in the images of Captain De Wet who arrests Biko after the football match. He is physically large, coarse faced and bull-like in appearance, features that are emphasised in extreme close ups. He is insulting, physically violent and unable to communicate in an intelligent and reasoned manner. He is to be seen as dull-witted, relying on the fist and the boot, rather than on the mind. This same kind of brutal image is repeated in the closing scenes of the Soweto uprising when the camera focuses in close up on the same broad, coarse features, the physical bulk and the readiness to use force - this time the indiscriminate force of the gun. Dramatic images such as that of the young boy running to escape over a wire fence and being shot in the back - reminiscent of similar images from post war films involving escapes from prisoner of war camps - or that of the policeman hanging out the window of a moving car, gun aimed at a fleeing child - an image straight out of American gangster films of the '30's - all reinforce this brutal representation. Kruger is a more sophisticated version of this image (like the Mafia boss); his brutality is either one step removed -instructing or colluding with De Wet and his men on their masked raid on the community centre - or verbal as in his comments already quoted about Biko's death leaving him cold. His thuggish representatives come knocking on Woods's door, armed with threats and hiding behind sinister-looking dark glasses.


The final impression of Cry Freedom is of a film of tremendous power which has something of the epic quality about it - sweeping shots of vast landscapes, huge crowd scenes and a theme of matching epic proportions. I don't have a budget figure for this but my guess is that it was a large one. Many things lead me to this conclusion. Firstly, although there are no big stars as such (John Thaw as Kruger and Timothy West as Captain De Wet are the only recognisable names to a British audience), the director, Sir Richard Attenborough, maker of another major film, "Ghandi" obviously has star quality and would be able to attract financial backing on the strength of his track record. He would also be liable to attract an audience who would be 'buying" the film on the strength of their recognition of the director's talent, rather than more conventionally, on the strength of the actor/actress's "star" rating. The high proportion of "on location" shots also suggest a high budget. The film was shot in Zimbabwe where the government was very eager to co-operate and to be seen as a sympathetic front-line state.
The huge crowd scenes, particularly at Steve Biko's funeral, also suggest high spending with hundreds, even thousands of extras being required. Similarly both the Crossroads sequence and the Soweto sequence would have incurred high costs. The weather plays an important part in the film. South Africa's warm climate would have meant perhaps an unimpeded shooting schedule but what of those scenes where torrential rain is needed? This may have required waiting around with film crews, sound crews, actors etcetera for days until the appropriate weather came or may even have necessitated a return visit to South Africa once the rainy season had come.

Because the script, written by screen writer, John Briley, was based on Donald Woods's own book, the latter was invited to accompany Richard Attenborough on location. Presumably, this incurred further costs. Internal sets such as Kruger's residence and the Woods home would have been negotiated and a fixed rental paid for the filming period while the interiors of the sets in the black townships would have incurred little expense as they were probably built on site or in the studio. The construction of the Crossroads set would have been a different matter! Costuming is not lavish but the sheer numbers of extras would have incurred a major cost, unless they supplied their own . The industrial determinants influencing Cry Freedom , therefore, would seem to me to centre on the star quality of Sir Richard Attenborough who could attract major financial backing, the bulk of which was then spent on establishing an authentic and powerful setting using lavish "location" shots, rather than on "star" acting names. The film could not rely on many spin-offs because of the nature of the subject matter ---the musical score perhaps and video production. It had to sell itself on the basis of its powerful universal message and on the name of its talented director who obviously had a strongly felt mission to evangelise the apartheid cause in the name of universal freedom.

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