Connie Field, from Berkeley to Johannesburg

Robert Avila November 5, 2007

Like most filmmakers, Berkeley-based documentarian Connie Field is drawn to powerful stories. But hers, in particular, seek to empower as well. From her first documentary, 1981’s award-winning "Life and Time of Rosie the Riveter," a key strategy has been introducing audiences to their own history. This is again the case with her latest project, a mammoth six-film series covering the global struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The first completed installment, "Have You Heard from Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West," opens in Bay Area theaters today. True to her filmmaking career, its history that packs a wallop. In fact, the "club" in the subtitle packs a nice double entendre itself: one, the Cold War country club of Western powers that, led by the U.S., propped up the white apartheid regime in South Africa against fierce internal and external resistance; two, the club of economic and political influence wielded by the West against the very same regime when enough people, again led by developments in the U.S., insisted that their government exercise its influence to bring justice to the black South Africans.

For information on Field’s work including her first film, "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter," which recently became available on DVD, as well as trailers for all episodes of her series on the anti-apartheid movement, go to the Clarity Films website ( Field’s most recent film prior to this project, a look at economically tiny and circumscribed Cuba’s world-class health system called "Salud!" (2006), screens in Oakland at the Grand Lake Theater on November 8 at 7 p.m.

SF360: Amazing that this story, so recent, seems so little understood here. Was part of your reason for making the film the fact that it was relatively unknown?

Connie Field: I wouldn’t say that my reason for making it was because it was something that was unknown per se. It was more because this was the most globalized human rights struggle the world has ever known, and our world is global. We need to learn how to organize and strategize and work globally. That was my reason for wanting to do it. And it was a great story. It was one of the most important stories of the whole last century. Because a key component [of the last century] was the struggle against institutionalized racism and colonialism, and this was the peak.

SF360: Both the parallels and differences with today are striking. One image that sums it up in terms of U.S. foreign policy is the shot you have of President Ronald Reagan meeting the press with one of the Afghani mujahideen, and shooing away a question about South Africa.

Field: Oh, we loved that piece. When I saw that I thought, ‘This is great!’

SF360: Did any of the people you talked to or interviewed allude to or note parallels with today?

Field: Well, I’ve been working on this film a long time. The majority of it was shot before 2001. Then what people were thinking about, in terms of what the future was going to be and the issues, [was] the fight against poverty, that that was going to be what the whole 21st century was going to be about. You look at our historic march toward greater and greater equality in the world, that certainly is the next step. But this was before September 11 and before this country created such a quagmire that we’re in now. But certainly, this is a story about changing U.S. foreign policy, and people did it against the most popular of the Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan, who vetoed it [a bill to impose sanctions]. And it was overridden. I just thought it was important that people don’t forget that that happened in the past and it can happen in the future. We’re dealing with a very different situation and it’s quite difficult, but we’ve already had successes: Why are the Democrats the majority in Congress now? There’s one reason. It’s called Iraq. So we do have impact. And it is how a democracy works. You have to fight for a democracy. It’s not something that people lay on your plate. This country I actually don’t consider a democracy. I think we live in a corporatocracy. The majority of people in America don’t even vote. If we were a real democracy we’d at least institute what they have in Australia, which is you have to vote. That would help things a lot. What would also help America, though who knows how this would ever work, is a more parliamentary system, where we could then have smaller parties that actually have a political influence, because then you’d have more people involved in political activity. So there are things we could do to strengthen our democracy and make it a real democracy, as opposed to what it is now.

But one of the other things that’s really important in this story, to us today, I’ll describe by how I felt in the late ’70s when I heard that people were going to make the banks stop loaning to South Africa and corporations get out. My response was you’re going to do what? You’re going to get the banks to do what? You’re crazy! But they weren’t crazy. It really happened. Understanding that we can have that influence. In fact, one of the interesting things about the story is that we’re set up in such a way that we actually have more leverage than almost certainly people in Europe do, because we’re a totally privatized economy. Our pension funds are in the stock market; so is everybody’s savings, from your church group to your city council to your states to your universities. We actually have, potentially, tremendous influence over our corporations and what they can and cannot do. And I think that’s something we really should not ever, ever forget. In Europe, it was actually much more difficult, because their countries are social democracies. Their governments give them their pensions, and all kinds of things that actually [mean they] have less leverage than we do.

SF360: That leverage was a key component of the strategy you document in the film, operating across an amazingly broad spectrum of activity.

Field: It’s because everybody could do it. It had the blessing of a supreme tactic. You could do it in your church, you could do it at your school, you could do it with your city council, you could do it at the state government, you could do it as a worker in a company. It was amazing. And this also gave people a way to feel they could act and it would have a difference no matter what the government did. It allowed everybody to be very active. So it was a great strategy.

SF360: To even get to that strategy, though, you need first to overcome the taboo of U.S. foreign policy being somehow beyond the reach or proper role of the citizenry. The film shows how right-wingers like Jean Kirkpatrick and Clarence Thomas, for example, were making the rather outrageous criticism that Black people had enough problems in their own neighborhoods and were therefore irresponsible in involving themselves in foreign policy. But that attitude is also more general, that foreign policy is too complex or too important or too distant for citizens to be actively concerned with it, or, again as the film notes, for even Congress to challenge the president on it.

Field: But it’s archaic. We don’t live in a world that can afford that. We live in a globalized world, and what this country does outside comes back to haunt us and affect us. So it shouldn’t be that way. We have a responsibility for our foreign policy, our entire population needs to be involved in it, because it’s the population who are being sent over there to get killed. This should never be something that’s a bailiwick of a president. It’s a big, big mistake.

SF360: The government seems intent on keeping that taboo in place.

Field: Certain aspects of the government. Remember this is what Cheney is all about, putting more and more powers in the presidency. It’s really dangerous, and it has nothing to do with democracy, and not even to do with the checks and balances we so pride ourselves on. It’s taking that away. As I said before, we live in a globalized world today; we can’t let our government do that. It affects us.

SF360: I’m reminded how February 15, 2003’s unprecedented worldwide protest against the war in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq was dismissed as a ‘focus group’ by the White House.

Field: They’ll always do that. Now maybe if the rest of the people in the world started economically attacking the United States by using some of the tactics that were used against the apartheid government, maybe it would have much more of an effect. They need to do that. It takes more than just demonstrating. Even though certainly what that did show us is how we can all mobilize on an international scale. We all did it the same day — except for us in San Francisco [laughs], we had to do it on a different day. But that’s very important. But remember also our situation is that there is no balance of power in the world right now. There really needs to be. There’s nothing out there quite strong enough to keep the United States in check. We’ve got what I consider the worst leadership we’ve ever had. And it’s horrible in terms of what it’s doing to the entire rest of the world. It’s horrible in terms of what it’s doing to us as Americans. Why should you be afraid to go anywhere, take an airplane for fear it’s going to blow up? Countries you can’t even go to? It’s really quite terrible. So what it takes to mobilize against the most powerful country in the world with no checks and balances is huge.

SF360: So the economic club is key.

Field: But it wasn’t just that. What this [story] also shows is that [the movement] did things at different levels: the city council started divesting; states started to do this. That can happen in our country. It’s happened around Iraq. There are many things getting passed on city councils. If it [begins to work] on so many levels, then it really affects the federal government eventually. It’s important that we know that. But because this history hasn’t been told before, it hasn’t really been out there in the general population.

SF360: The film also reflects the politically empowering aspect of the campaign itself.

Field: In a film I made with Marilyn Mumford called ‘Freedom on My Mind,’ my original impetus for making that film was to show how the Civil Right Movement built all the other movements in the sixties. I didn’t quite do that with that story but anyway this does happen. My generation grew up understanding that you can be empowered and you can change the entire course of history. We’ve lived through it, and we’ve seen it, and we know it. The reason I got interested in history was because during that period we started learning things that went on before us that we never knew about. We started learning the truth about why we even have social security in this country. It wasn’t Roosevelt. People did this. How things really worked, and all the struggles that were won in the past. That’s why I think so many of us coming out of that milieu as filmmakers did a lot of historical films. We made ‘Union Maids,’ we made ‘With Babies and Banners,’ we made ‘The Wobblies,’ you know, showing people the successful things that happened in the past because that helped to give us a sense of empowerment for the work we were going through.

So I’m hoping this [film] will also help impact people that way. And this struggle in particular was a great victory. A lot of people are very concerned about South Africa today, and they should be. But it’s only been 13 years. Thirteen years is not very much time. Plus, what you need to do to topple a repressive government and create a situation where people actually have their human rights is one thing. What you do to tackle the economic problems of the world you’re faced with is another. In Freedom on My Mind, Bob Moses, who was a wonderful organizer, said about what they accomplished in Mississippi, ‘We’ve brought Mississippi up to the level of the rest of the country, no more and no less.’ What they’ve done in South Africa is bring South Africa up to the level of the rest of the world. It’s suffering from things the whole world suffers from. The world suffers terribly for economic inequality. The world suffers terribly for not getting all its health needs taken care of. The world suffers terribly because of corruption. It’s not just in Africa; it’s in our own government. How many of these Republicans have been knocked out because of corruption just in the last three years? So this is something the whole world faces and, yes, they are facing it in South Africa.

SF360: Apartheid, at least, has passed out of South Africa. But the term has come to be applied since then to the Israeli occupation regime in Palestine, most recently and famously by Jimmy Carter (subject of another new documentary, by Jonathan Demme) and also previously by South African activists as well, like Desmond Tutu, whom you interviewed. Is this term applied legitimately in your view?

Field: It’s because, if you look at it, what were the tools of apartheid? How were people’s lives affected by it? A: They had to carry passes. The Black people did. It’s the same with Palestinians. B: They were prisoners on their own land. The Africans were, and so are the Palestinians. It’s not like they’ve got a country that they’re running. It’s totally divided even inside their country. They’re kept to live over here, and then if they’re lucky they can get jobs in Israel, because Israel has a much bigger economy. It’s the same in South Africa with saying you belong on these homelands, where nobody could eek out a living, and they had to come and have passes to be able to work in white South Africa, and white South Africa needed their labor. There are all these parallels that absolutely fit.

SF360: And in the nature of the uprisings and resistance?

Field: You know, everybody says how horrible Palestinians are, with their terror tactics, yet nobody looks at the fact that the Palestinians don’t have an army, they’re not allowed to have an army. What do they have? How are they going to fight? The ANC were called terrorists. Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist, by Reagan, by Thatcher. They did do sabotage. Most of their sabotage was blowing up oil pylons and other things, but sometimes they hit restaurants and whatever else. They were faced with fighting the biggest army in all of Africa, OK? Here, the Israelis go in and they bulldoze houses, and they bomb people, and they kill civilians like mad. It’s not called terrorism. But, literally, what is the difference? So in that sense there’s also a parallel. There are all sorts of things I don’t like about it, but I do understand people have to fight and this is the only way available to them. And the Israelis are being just as terroristic on them, if not more so. So I think that’s why people are drawing the analogy, and I think it’s quite appropriate because there are so many things that are quite similar.

SF360: Just as apartheid couldn’t have survived without Reagan and Thatcher (as one of the former South African officials you interview says plainly), the U.S. provides crucial cover for this situation in the occupied territories. Does the story of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s hold out a similar tactical model for addressing this problem, from the perspective of changing U.S. foreign policy with respect to supporting the Israeli occupation?

Field: Oh, very much so. In fact, it’s one of the places where it’s the most applicable. Because it’s the same situation where you’ve got a population that’s very connected to the West, both politically and economically. Even though the people in Israel actually come from all over. There’s many from Africa and Arab countries and other places. It’s not just Ashkenazi. But the Ashkenazis are the ones that founded it really, and are probably represented in the government more than any other group. And they’re very identified with the West. So yes you can do that. It’s probably one of the key places. (In Darfur, I know people are using it. It’s much more complicated. There is not that same kind of connection to the West. In fact, China has more to do economically with the Sudan than other places do. So maybe you impact China; people are trying to do that.) You do, though, have a much tougher battle than South Africa, much tougher, and that’s because of the history that created Israel. That’s a real history. The Jews have a horrible history of being oppressed in the rest of the world. I’m Jewish myself so I certainly understand that and people feel very vulnerable without Israel existing. On the other hand, it’s created a real mess. But it’s complicated. When the [U.S. Protestant] churches started doing that [organizing economic pressure on Israel] believe me the American Jewish organizations came really down on the churches, had meetings with them, begged with them, got them to back down from this. This is emotionally a hot potato. If the Palestinians wanted to simplify it, they would just get rid of any words about Israel not existing, just get it out of there, so that this is never a danger. But the tactics would work in this case, very much so. It’s just a tougher battle. Everybody was against apartheid. Here you’ve got a situation where the Israelis are fighting people who want to ‘push them into the ocean,’ so they say. And you’re dealing with a population — it’s almost like they’re fighting back 2000 years of history, and they’re going to fight it no matter what. There’s a kind of desperation, in a sense, to it. But you can understand that. So it’s very charged. But yes, it’s key to everything in the Middle East, and yes these tactics are the most appropriate ones to use.

SF360: Is the success of the anti-apartheid movement partly responsible for a government backlash on information, openness and so on?

Field: Well, I don’t know if it’s the anti-apartheid movement and not just as much the anti-Vietnam War movement and everything. This is the most secretive government we’ve ever had. We’ve never had a government like this government. We really haven’t. They’re the worst. They’ve put the brakes on anything that was going to give the population any reason to oppose what they’re doing, even down to not allowing footage of the American soldiers coming back in their caskets. It’s a concerted effort to control that. But it’s the same thing, actually, that the apartheid government did. They totally controlled the media in their country, once eruptions broke out. Even in Soweto, in 1976, there’s hardly any film footage of it. I had to use a lot of still photographs because they stopped the news media from going in after ’86 and ’87. Their white population was never told anything. Many white people grew up in South Africa not understanding a thing about what their government was doing to the Black Africans in their country. It was totally controlled. That’s what this government is also trying to do. So, in essence, they’re acting more like the apartheid government than any other government we’ve ever had in terms of the media.

SF360: Anyone who was reluctant to be interviewed?

Field: Well, I did approach Pik Botha, who was the foreign minister, back in 1999. And he wouldn’t be interviewed. I actually did interview him this past September, but he was not a very good, forthcoming interview particularly. Yeah, there were people. I couldn’t interview P.W. Botha when he was still alive.

SF360: And in the U.S.?

Field: No, no. I had no problem with the U.S. government.

SF360: It was such a broad and multi-level movement, did people in it have a full grasp of the big picture at the time?

Field: Most people don’t. This is the value of looking back at something, because you actually put things in a context that you don’t know when you’re living through it. Even in South Africa, most South Africans know nothing about what got done in the rest of the world. Not a thing. You’re living in your moment, and you see what you see. That’s why doing history is valuable to us.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.