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MOVIES : 'Sarafina!' in a Brave New World : Five years ago, the anti-apartheid musical appealed to the emotions; now comes the film, which also taps into the mind

September 13, 1992|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

The world has changed radically in the five years since the South African musical "Sarafina!" first hit the Broadway stage. The Soviet Union has collapsed. The Berlin Wall is gone. And, in the wake of the release of jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, the Parliament of South Africa abolished the laws mandating separation of the races.

As history has evolved, so did the film version of "Sarafina!"

"Though our project is still confrontational and angry, it's told with more hope and a spirit of reconciliation," observes Darrell James Roodt, the director of the $8-million project, which is being released in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. "With the advantage of hindsight, it's the same story--but completely different."

In more ways than one. On stage, "Sarafina!" creator Mbongeni Ngema relied on a simplistic play-within-a-play structure and the force of emotion to hit home the evils of apartheid. On screen, he and co-writer William Nicholson broadened the scope--strengthening the narrative, fleshing out the characterizations, injecting an intellectual element missing from the original.

The tale takes place in the black township of Soweto 10 years after the bloody 1976 riots--a four-day incident triggered by a government regulation requiring the use of the hated Afrikaans language in the classroom. It is told through the voice of a naive young black girl (21-year-old Leleti Khumalo, repeating her Tony-nominated stage performance) who fantasizes about a show business career and, on a grander scale, the freedom of her hero Mandela. Caught up in the schoolchildren's resistance--during which thousands of students were detained and many tortured and killed--she's forced to examine both her principles and her politics.

Music and dance, a unifying force in the liberation movement, are interspersed throughout--with some help from South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and choreographer Michael Peters, who is known for his work on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Thriller" videos. Though the musical numbers shoulder less of the burden in the film than in the play, their very presence made "Sarafina!" a tougher sell.

"Musicals are a dinosaur, an oddity," Roodt points out. "And 'Sarafina!'--a political musical--is even stranger. Breaking into song during a thought-provoking political sequence is crazy. Though 'Cabaret' comes the closest, we had no real point of reference. We were shooting in the dark."

Producer Anant Singh acquired the rights to the Broadway hit a few years ago, after it captured five 1988 Tony nominations, including one for best musical. When the major studios turned the screenplay down flat, he financed it independently through the British Broadcasting Corp. and Revcom, a French company. It wasn't until the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, when Singh lined up Whoopi Goldberg to play the role of Sarafina's inspirational teacher, that Hollywood began to take note.

After Miramax saw 40 minutes of the film in February, it picked up the North American rights and pledged $5 million for prints and advertising. In May, when the movie received a lengthy standing ovation at the 1992 Cannes festival, Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg approached Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, and offered to distribute the film.

"Two heads, two wallets are better than one," Weinstein says. "The Disney marketing machine could get it to a greater audience, especially the kids. Our strength is the upscale adult end of the spectrum."

Making a virtue out of necessity, the cost-conscious filmmakers placed a premium on authenticity. South African singer Miriam Makeba, who plays Sarafina's mother in the film, was a real-life exile, denied permission to enter the country when she attempted to return for her mother's funeral in 1960. Many "Sarafina!" extras and a number of featured actors were participants in the student resistance, which was credited, in part, with Mandela's release.

"This isn't 'A World Apart,' 'A Dry White Season,' a 'Cry Freedom!' " says Singh, a 34-year-old third-generation South African Indian, referring to previous cinematic treatments of apartheid.

"Why must all stories about black oppression be told from a white point of view? When people ask me why there is no good white in the movie, I tell them that this is one movie that isn't about whites. Many of the actors have been arrested, had the police break down their doors in the middle of the night. Almost everyone had either first- or secondhand experience with the movement. The kids in the cast were performing what they lived."

Leleti Khumalo is a case in point--and one of the rare stage actresses to accompany a hit play from Broadway to the screen. One of four children born into a poor Durban family, she was raised in a house with no chairs and one bed. Acting aspirations led her to a dance class, where she was "discovered" by a director searching for young local talent.

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