One of the more absorbing documentaries to play at South by Southwest, Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies is a positive breather after the heaviness of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Taking its name from a song from Paul Simon’s Graceland, the doc follows the singer to South Africa to reunite with musicians he worked with during the making of his legendary album 25 years ago.
Much of the film is made up of reminiscences about the album’s production, and the controversy that followed its release, during a time when apartheid still existed in South Africa. For Simon, Graceland—which remains famous for its melding of South African music and American pop—was never about making political statements through music (Simon pointedly brings up Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko” as the type of explicitly political song in which he himself wasn’t expressly interested). It was always about the music first. In fact, it was literally about music first in the case of Graceland, because the music—much of it borne out of jam sessions in which he and his musicians played around with sounds and grooves before they hit on something he liked—came before Simon wrote the lyrics.
Not that Simon was wholly ignorant of the racial tensions in South Africa before he decided to travel to the country to record some of the music—though he admits in the film that it was only after he got there that he realized just how fraught the country’s race relations were. However, he didn’t allow politics to dictate what he felt he needed to do for his own artistic satisfaction—not even when friend Harry Belafonte warned him he should clear his visit with the South African government first. Simon didn’t listen, though, and it came back to bite him when he came under fire not only from the United Nations for violating its cultural boycott of the country, but also from anti-apartheid activists who felt his efforts weren’t helpful to their cause.
One of Berlinger’s more inspired conceits is to partially structure the film around a meeting with Simon and Dali Tambo, the South African head of an organization called Artists Against Apartheid and one of the more vocal critics of Graceland at the time. During the meeting, Simon explains his side of the story, thus leading into the section of the film that focuses most on the album’s making; Tambo ushers in the part of the film that deals with the controversy. The meeting suggests a clearing of the air of sorts, culminating in a moment of reconciliation between the two that, in this context, suggests the album’s lasting legacy as an act of cross-cultural empathy in addition to being simply a great album simply on musical terms.
While Under African Skies may function as a nostalgia trip for some, it does lightly suggest scintillating questions about how much of a responsibility artists have to reflect current political moments in their music, especially when taking the kind of risks Paul Simon did in making Graceland. Berlinger is intelligent enough leave such a difficult question hanging in the air rather than settling down on one side of the fence over another.
Jessica Yu’s Last Call at the Oasis, concerning the shortage in the world’s water supply that threatens us all, is a film in the mold of activist documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and last year’s SXSW hit The City Dark. We don’t go to films like these expecting cinematic innovation; we go to have our eyes opened and, hopefully, be provoked to action about an issue the filmmaker has deemed important enough to devote a whole film to exploring. On that level, Last Call at the Oasis is successful—a must-see purely on the basis of its subject matter and the thoroughness with which it explores the issue at hand.
Yu’s most noteworthy achievement is to go beyond statistics to present a more multifaceted portrait of the water crisis: the present-day horrors (farmers in Australia committing suicide in large numbers as a result of seemingly endless drought), the scary potential future scenarios, the social and political factors impacting the causes and effects of the issue. The filmmaker’s view is so wide-ranging that she even includes a section toward the end which briefly discusses the religious connotations of water in the context of Yardenit, the only section of the Jordan River that’s pretty much clean enough for baptisms.
There really isn’t a whole lot else to say about Last Call at the Oasis beyond that; the film is unassailable as activism, a work that demands to be seen and talked about. At the very least, it’s effective enough that I now think, after seeing it, that I could never take bottled water—which the film argues isn’t really any better than tap water, and may in fact be worse in some ways—seriously ever again. Obviously, there’s more to the film’s revelations than that, but that kind of altering of perspective is one mission of activist documentaries of this type, at least.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.