CLOSING NIGHT FILM AND FILMMAKER TRIBUTE AWARDS SPOTLIGHT: Exclusive Interview with UNDER AFRICAN SKIES Director Joe Berlinger!
In 1985, after hearing a cassette tape of an instrumental song called "Gumboots", performed by the South African band Boyoyo Boys, the singer-songwriter Paul Simon set out to South Africa to record with local musicians who could help him emulate the sound with which he had fallen in love. The result of that collaboration was the 1986 album Graceland, which went on to not only become Simon's most successful album, but also launched the "world music" genre of the 1980's. But not everyone was happy; by recording in South Africa and touring with a band of South African musicians, Simon was accused of violating the cultural boycott of South Africa, erected in an attempt to help bring down the nation's racist apartheid regime. Joe Berlinger's Under African Skies is the story of Graceland, from its inception to the political uproar it created. Filled with footage of the recording sessions, live performances and the incredible music of Simon's legendary album, Under African Skies is a triumphant story of the power of music to transcend our differences and bring the world together in song. The Sarasota Film Festival is proud to present Under African Skies as our 2012 Closing Night Film.
Under African Skies screens with our FILMMAKER TRIBUTE AWARDS tonight at 6:00 PM at the Sarasota Opera House. Come early if you want to catch the red carpet arrivals!
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: What were your feelings twenty-five years ago when you first heard Graceland and witnessed the controversy surrounding the record and tour?
JOE BERLINGER: One of the reasons I wanted to make this film is that I remembered how I immediately loved the record and how, to this day, it is one of my 'go-to' records to lift my mood. It's such a joyous, brilliant record. I also was a very politically aware twenty-five year-old, so I was very supportive of the anti-apartheid movement and yet I found the criticism of the record and tour to be baffling. Paul was exporting to the world the very culture that the apartheid regime was trying to crush. His record and tour were a highly consistent anti-apartheid message.
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: What were your goals while making of Under African Skies?
JOE BERLINGER: We wanted to present both sides of the controversy and we wanted to explore the making of this amazing music. With Graceland Paul Simon brought world music to the masses. His process for creating this music was brilliant. He worked with these amazing musicians in South Africa and was arranging and composing on the fly, taking certain sounds and changing them up, taking these backing tracks to New York and London and writing songs on top of them. This was long before the advent of Pro Tools and sampling. He had experimented with the process with earlier songs but never with an entire album. Watching Paul create new takes on these songs gave me an even deeper appreciation for what a consummate artist he is as an arranger, a composer, a lyricist and a musician. I wanted to convey a much deeper understanding of the mastery that produced this record and we did that.
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: How did the reunion concert come about?
JOE BERLINGER: I had suggested to Paul that if he was going back to South Africa then we should reunite all the musicians and do a concert. For that to happen so quickly considering the schedules of superstars like Ray Phiri, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela says a lot about how people who were involved in the Graceland experience hold it so near and dear to their heart. Not because they became more famous (when the record became a worldwide phenomena), that wasn't what it was about at all. For them, the human experience of being in that studio and recoding that music, then going on the road to perform it, all in the glare of apartheid, was a seminal event in their lives. And they have such a deep respect and love for Paul-and Paul for them-that I was very impressed by that human interaction and the importance of this experience for everyone. You just felt it in the room.
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: Tell us about Paul's conversation with Dali Tambo.
JOE BERLINGER: It was very important for me to get an interview with Dali Tambo because he was one of Paul's harshest critics and the son of the late exiled ANC President Oliver Tambo, but I had no idea when we were heading to South Africa if that would happen. It all came together in the last few days of shooting. During my initial interview with Dali I suggested the sit down with Paul (they had never met before) and that happened the very next morning. You really feel how spontaneous it all was in the film and it was a great device to thread that conversation throughout the movie. I think it really kicks the film up a couple of levels.
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: Yes, visually that interview feels very immediate and intimate. Take us behind the scenes for that part of the shoot.
JOE BERLINGER: Interestingly, they're sitting on that couch and the physicality of it, the geometry of it, is a little awkward. It's a slightly uncomfortable conversation and I think the couch reflects that. I had told my crew to pre-light a different corner of the room, but Paul and Dali didn't go to that corner, they went to that couch and immediately started exchanging views for a two-hour conversation. Five minutes into their talk my cameraman, who's been shooting my films for twenty years, gave me a look that communicated that this wasn't the best shot. Aesthetically maybe I should have moved to get a better shot, but that was far less important than letting the conversation authentically unfold. If I stopped the conversation to remind them that we were shooting, to reposition them and tweak the lights, it would have ruined the moment. It's a great, brilliant, spontaneous conversation that really makes the film work.
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: How do you feel about the overwhelmingly positive audience reactions to Under African Skies?
JOE BERLINGER: I spent two decades documenting one of the most harrowing miscarriages of justice you can imagine with the West Memphis Three trilogy. I made a film called Gray Matter about the murder of handicapped children during the Nazi regime. I've made very serious films about bleak social issues like pollution in the Amazon with my movie Crude. I'm used to people wanting to slit their wrists by the end of my movies because of their bleak view of the human condition. The fact that this is such a crowd pleaser is actually a new experience for me. I received such joy from Graceland and from observing Paul and the musicians in South Africa as they rehearsed and performed. To share that musical and human joy with an audience to the point where at the end of the film people are clapping and singing along and staying in their seats as the end credits roll is an amazing experience.
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL: What do you hope audiences take from Under African Skies?
JOE BERLINGER: I want the audience to go on this ride of understanding that, at the end of the day, in my opinion, art triumphs politics. That a brilliant artistic achievement rises to the top, the music lives on and the politics are set on the side. At the same time I think it's critical to remember what happened in South Africa. It's one of the few examples where the cultural boycott was actually effective. I think it's amazing that the world banded together, isolated this regime and brought it down. I also believe the Graceland record and tour was a part of that movement. The very culture apartheid was trying to extinguish is what Paul Simon was putting on display to the world. As Paul says in the film, intellectually, obviously, people knew that apartheid was wrong. But Graceland was one of many tools that allowed people to connect to that idea emotionally. And when you have an emotional connection to an idea, it's much more persuasive.
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger has been a leading voice in nonfiction film and television for two decades. Berlinger's films include the landmark documentaries BROTHER'S KEEPER, PARADISE LOST, and METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, a film that re-defined the rockumentary genre. CRUDE, about oil pollution in the Amazon Rainforest, won 22 human rights, environmental and film festival awards and recently triggered a high-profile First Amendment battle with oil-giant Chevron. Five of Berlinger's documentary features, including his 2012 Paul Simon documentary UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, earning three Grand Jury Prize nominations. He has also received multiple awards from the Directors Guild of America, the National Board of Review and the Independent Spirit Awards.
In addition to his feature documentary work, Berlinger, a two-time Emmy and Peabody winner, has created many hours of television as both a producer and director, including the Emmy-winning History Channel series 10 DAYS THAT UNEXPECTEDLY CHANGED AMERICA and the Emmy-nominated GRAY MATTER. He has directed and produced five seasons of the critically acclaimed Sundance Channel series ICONOCLASTS and directed/executive-produced the first season of MASTER CLASS, a new series for the Oprah Winfrey Network. His numerous HBO productions include ADDICTION, JUDGEMENT DAY and VIRTUAL CORPSE, and he has created series for VH1 and Court TV. His series THE WRONG MAN helped lead to the exoneration of Marty Tankleff, falsely imprisoned for 17 years for the killing of his parents. Berlinger's dramatic television directorial credits include NBC's acclaimed hit drama HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, as well as the short-lived UPN/Dick Wolf series D.C.
Berlinger's Emmy-winning PARADISE LOST series for HBO helped spawn a worldwide movement to free "The West Memphis Three" from wrongful murder convictions. Berlinger also directs commercials and industrial films for such clients as Ford, Honda, Kodak and Tiffany & Co., and is represented for commercials by bicoastal/international @radical.media. That relationship was expanded in 2001 — Berlinger houses his production company, Third Eye Motion Picture Company, at @radical.media, running many of his television and feature projects through @radical's content division.
Berlinger's articles and photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, ArtForum, Film Comment, and Aperture magazines. His book, METALLICA: THIS MONSTER LIVES, THE INSIDE STORY OF SOME KIND OF MONSTER, was published in 2004 by St. Martin's Press.
Joe Berlinger is a member of the DGA, the WGA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the National Board of Review.