One of the first films I saw from the Encounters Film Festival’s remarkable selection of documentaries was Uprize!, director Sifiso Khanyile’s hour-long feature that contextualises the events that led to the 1976 student uprisings, not only in Soweto but also around the country.
Listening to him speak about his film at the Goethe-Institut after a sold-out premiere screening last weekend, it became apparent that Khanyile’s approach to telling the story was intentional: “I didn’t want to show black people running away from the police, fallen bodies on the ground. I wanted to show people fighting back, running towards the camera and the police.”
It is with this intention that Khanyile, with the assistance of archival researcher Fanyana Hlabangane, zooms in on a particular period in South African history to unpack the conditions that led to 15- to 18-year-olds across the country giving a fuck about politics, taking to the streets and paying with their lives.
The story, while paying homage to the well-known fallen such as Hector Pieterson, does not focus on the giants that history usually selects. Instead, it is narrated by people who were there and who relay the climate that led to the day we now know as June 16.
Duma ka Ndlovu, Fatima Dike, Lefifi Tladi, Mandy Sanger, Sibongile Mkhabela, Zelda Holtzman, Abigail Kubeka and Harry Nengwe-khulu, among other prominent activists and artists, appear against a black background throughout the film, which takes viewers through the passage of time by way of personal anecdotes interspersed with super-rare footage of the decade.
Muvhango creator Ka Ndlovu talks about the importance of expelled university students in conscientising pupils in covert poetry activations unwittingly allowed by various schools in Soweto, events that would today probably be born on Facebook and Twitter via hashtags today.
Holtzman extends the uprising’s locale to the Cape, telling the stories of the youth of Khayelitsha and Langa, who were at times terrorised by state-endorsed student militia from institutions such as Stellenbosch University.
Dike, the first black female published playwright in South Africa, features extensively in the documentary. She first appears at the beginning, reciting the kind of history that black pupils received during Bantu education to harrowing images of black people being “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
Then she appears again during the climax of the film, calmly telling the catastrophic story of Xolile Mosi, who was among the first to be shot on August 11 1976 in Langa on the Cape Flats.
This is Khanyile and producer Tshego Molete Khanyile’s second feature documentary. They also made Prisoner 46764: The Untold Legacy of Andrew Mlangeni, in 2014, an important portrait that doesn’t seem to have made it into the public consciousness while Mlangeni, one of the last two remaining Rivonia trialists, is still alive.
Uprize! is the result of a call by the National Film and Video Foundation for filmmakers to produce films to commemorate 40 years since June 16 1976. One hopes that this bite-sized bit of a furthered historical narrative will have a longer lifespan than typical local documentaries, which usually have lacklustre lives after festivals.
Having already been circulated at various schools, it would be worthwhile to see a film like this added to pupils’ arts and history education, with the intention of countering single narratives.
Uprize! will be screened on Friday June 16 at the Bioscope in Maboneng at 5pm. Visit encounters.co.za