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An odyssey in black and white

A season of vintage South African films takes us on an atmospheric - if occasionally bizarre - journ

The London African Film Festival in December provides a rare opportunity to see a series of old pictures from South Africa. Some are very early experiments in film, such as the silent Siliva the Zulu (1927) or De Voortrekkers (1916), both to be shown with a live piano accompaniment. The later films illuminate South Africa's apartheid history: some - the infamous Building a Nation (1938), for instance - were used by the government as propaganda for their racist philosophy, while others, the secretly filmed Come Back Africa (1959) being the most powerful example, aimed to bring the injustice of the system to worldwide attention.

The films offer a wild, occasionally hilarious, and often infuriating reminder of the myths and realities of the old South Africa. This is film noir territory, appropriately captured in black and white: double-breasted, broad-hatted gangsters and drunken intellectuals sit in illegal shebeens; Dolly and the Inkspots, that ubiquitous 1950s band, with their white canes and top hats, croon endlessly in low dives. Massed drums and swinging big bands, their rolling brass sound pierced by penny whistles, supply a relentless soundtrack.

There are two landscapes in South African cinema: the elegiac hills of the countryside, most often Zululand, and the menace of Egoli, or Johannesburg, the city of gold. With its old-style skyscrapers, deserted white suburbs and teeming black shanty towns, Johannesburg is peopled by shrill madams and their sullen "boys". It reeks of booze and violence, fraternity and brutality, of job losses and early deaths.

This is film noir territory: broad-hatted gangsters and drunken intellectuals sit drinking in illegal shebeens

Come Back Africa, the highlight of the season, was the world's first anti-apartheid film, directed by the maverick American Lionel Rogosin. Earl Lloyd Ross's An American in Sophiatown (2007), a documentary about the making of the film, will also be shown. Rogosin was born in New York and worked in the textile industry before teaching himself film-making. He got his start on skid row in New York, making the acclaimed On the Bowery before heading off with a minimal crew to Johannesburg, intent on fighting apartheid. He hooked up with a coterie of journalists, including Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane and Can Themba, who were the mainstays of South Africa's pictorial magazine Drum. Rogo sin got permission to shoot by persuading the authorities that he was making a film about the Boer War. It was his third and most successful explanation; each in turn had been swallowed by a police state which, at the time, could not believe that a white man would do anything against the government.

Modisane and Nkosi assembled the script while Rogosin recruited non-professional black actors for his cast. Because he couldn't risk hiring white professionals who might give him away, he used political activists to play the parts of baas and madam. One took Rogosin and his writers aside after reading the script. In her experience, she said, white employers could be a whole lot worse to their black domestics than the writers had imagined. As if born to the role, she ended up playing a hysteric whose life revolves around the quality of her mushroom soup.

CBA, as it is affectionately known, tells the story of country-born Zacharia, who comes to the big city and becomes a victim of the twin evils of apartheid and township tsotsis (gangsters). Zacharia's tale of doom is sometimes stilted, especially when the amateur actors simultaneously improvise and translate in order to converse in English, their second language. Yet the film also contains beautifully crafted sequences that add to the poignancy of the story: the ghastly hilarity, for example, of newcomers being trained into a rhythmic chain gang; the wavering thread lines of headlamps in the misty dark; the Salgado-esque vision of ranks of miners descending via chain-linked walkways into the bowels of the earth.

Drum’s “lensmen” documented Nelson Mandela boxing, township sharpies jiving, and police vans ferrying political detainees to court

Zacharia's world is dominated by the Group Areas Act - legislation that allocated each racial group a specific part of the city, often driving people from their homes - and the internal passport, known as dompass, which all blacks were obliged to carry. His descent is preordained, and yet the final moments of the film, when he faces the destruction of everything he holds dear, are no less shocking for being inevitable. It is a scene of unbearable power: an ordinary man portraying the rage of his character's dissolution. Even as we immerse ourselves in the fiction, we seem to be witnessing the destruction of a real person. It brings viewers close to feeling the rage that springs from being so powerless and bereft.

One scene in CBA would be unforgettable even if it were not so often referenced in other films of the period. It takes place in a shebeen with a line-up that includes Lewis Nkosi and Can Themba, the leading black South African intellectuals of their day. Themba, in his woolly hat, is a riveting vision: he appears here in his prime, a talented man who would eventually kill himself with drink, spinning tongue-in-cheek hypotheses to explain the brutality of a notorious tsotsi. This being South Africa, there has to be music, delivered, in this instance, by the young Miriam Makeba. There she stands, slim and shy and fairly ordinary, but with that uncannily gorgeous voice. It was Rogosin who got Makeba out of South Africa to Europe and America, where she befriended the likes of Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando and became the legendary Mama Afrika.

Rogosin must have taken the title for his film from the 1950s ANC slogan "Mayibuye i'Afrika" ("Come back, Africa"). It is a phrase you see often on placards in the pictures from Drum magazine that are displayed in Have You Seen Drum Recently? (1988), Jürgen Schadeberg's riveting documentary about the magazine. Drum's "lensmen", photographers such as Peter Magu bane, documented Nelson Mandela boxing, township sharpies jiving, and police vans ferrying political detainees to court to be met by vast demonstrations. The images became part of the iconography of the 20th century. Schadeberg's documentary - the only one in the season occasionally to burst into colour - bears witness not only to the optimism and style of the black townships, but also to the end of such optimism. Many of the pictures, and much of the story that they tell, took place in Sophiatown. In its prime, Sophiatown was a vibrant, hectic, contradictory, racially diverse hub - in the language of apartheid, a racial "black spot". It was razed to the ground between 1955 and 1963, replaced by the all-white suburb of Triomf, signalling the triumph of apart heid against the people of South Africa.

The photographs published in Drum stand witness to the times so wonderfully that we can forgive Schadeberg's documentary for occasionally becoming didactic. They provide a visual record of the increasing brutality of the apartheid state, which in turn transformed the anti-apartheid movement. As the peaceful Defiance campaign was met with draconian punishment, the optimistic Freedom Charter with a Treason Trial, and the pass-burning of Sharpeville with guns and death, the militancy of young lions of the ANC such as Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu moved the organisation into the modern world. The cheery upheld thumb of the "Mayibuye" slogan was replaced by the clenched-fist cry of "Amandla!" and the response "Ngawethu!". "Come back, Africa" had become the much more assertive "Power to the People".

The destruction of Sophiatown was an iconic moment, but prior to its demise, what was the area actually like? Well, it appears from some of these films to have been full of happy, clappy, dancing natives - and boy, could they sing! Emil Nofal's Song of Africa (1951) is a journey into ethnicity on acid. It opens with the big cowboy country music of 1950s Hollywood, and the camera soon settles on a rural big band decked out in Hollywoodised Zulu gear - strips of fur over their genitals and weird pompoms on their heads. I kept wondering what was missing, only to realise that it was cannibal bones threaded through noses.

"From Africa," a voice-over proclaims, "have come many strange and fascinating things, but none more strange and fascinating than the dances of the African people". Correction: none more strange or ersatz than this film (though it has to be said that some of the dancing, and particularly the gumboot dancing, is great).

There are almost identical scenes in Donald Swanson's African Jim (1949), "the first full entertainment film to be made in South Africa with an all-native cast". This film, according to the festival brochure, had a sensational impact on black audiences nationwide: those were the days, it seems, when they were so desperate for films starring black people, they would swallow the fantasy of an angry white baas turning into a benign record producer who gives our hero his break. It must have been good to dream.

"Early South African Cinema" is at the Barbican Centre, London EC2, from 1-4 December. For more details visit: www.barbican.org.uk

The London African Film Festival runs until 7 December. For more information visit: www.africaatthepictures.co.uk

Gillian Slovo's latest novel, "Black Orchids", is published by Virago (£11.99 paperback)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?