Films on Namibia
To fill the gap

by Michael Mercer

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 11-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

Much like the proverbial blind men reporting on the elephant, most films on Namibia alone give only a partial, sometimes misleading picture. A history of colonialism and apartheid, a guerrilla war, a political contest inside the country and internationally, Namibia is all these things, but at once. As of now, one film touches all bases, if lightly, providing by far the best introduction to the topic as well as a context for viewing the other films. And at least one of these others is a "must" for those interested in the growing conflagration in Southern Africa.

FREE NAMIBIA, produced by the United Nations just last year, moves through the country at a considerate pace, employing live footage only (much of it borrowed from other films) and including many brief interviews. A few parallel shots showing transportation for blacks and whites, their housing, etc. establish the contrasts between the two worlds, interspersed with whites articulating the aging Nazi-cowboy spirit in defense of their privileges. Leaders of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) in turn tell why SWAPO struggles to eliminate privileges, and they testify to the torture some have received. The 20-year history of SWAPO is limited to its main features: its non-violent beginnings, a false hope in UN resolutions (a brave admission in a film by the UN), then the guerrilla war. The narrative, spoken by Ossie Davis, is partisan but not rhetorical. It takes SWAPO's point of view while sticking to the facts: the dustbowl poverty of the rural areas, which forces the men to work on 12 or 18 month contracts in the cities, the jail-like compounds in which they huddle six to a cell, and the disparity between their wages and those of the white workers. Some of the information is sketchy — particularly about the multinational corporations involvement in Namibia and its colonial history. Yet with this film, an informed speaker accompanying it could flick on the lights and take off from any one of the points mentioned in it.

Within FREE NAMIBIA, the footage of SWAPO guerrilla fighters is superficial, as well as oddly sandwiched inside a description of working conditions for blacks. Possibly the UN-sponsored filmmakers intended this arrangement to distinguish SWAPO's military wing from that part of SWAPO still legal inside the country, a point which comes up later in the film. In any event, the guerrilla war is an issue programmers should follow up with another film, ideally shown right after FREE NAMIBIA.

LIBERATION STRUGGLE IN NAMIBIA, shot by a Swedish TV crew, takes us inside the bush of the northern border region to move among SWAPO guerrillas: on the march, taking target practice, listening to a leader explain the workings of the AK-47. Over these starkly military images, the narrative clearly explains the guerrillas' reasons for fighting, their humanistic, non-military goals, and their relationship with local villagers.

In a lengthy interview, an old village resident recounts the treatment he and others of his village received from the South African army, and he displays his scars to illustrate. He had refused to disclose where nearby guerrillas were, and he tells why he chose to take a beating instead.

In a complementary scene, we join a small group of guerrillas sitting around their temporary camp under the shelter of a few trees. Talking to some younger men, a veteran medic describes in detail techniques for treating the illnesses of nearby villagers. His medical explanation is laced with reminders that helping these people is what SWAPO is all about. It is for the people, after all, that the soldiers are fighting. In contrast to the men in this sequence, the few women in the group meander off at the very start of the filming, as if to get out of the way so that the men could talk politics. Whether or not that was indeed the case, to some American women such a scene indicated the film's sexism, and evidently they mentioned this to Ben Gurirab, SWAPO representative at the UN. SWAPO's subsequent film, NAMIBIA: THE PEOPLE ARMED, gives quite a different picture, including interviews with members of the SWAPO Women's Council.

This latter film, made by SWAPO and some East German filmmakers, is technically the worst of the films on Namibia. This was possibly due to the difficulties of shooting in Winhoek and other cities crawling with police. NAMIBIA: THE PEOPLE ARMED has a home-movie quality, which is at times intimate but more often annoying, as when some probably telling conversations among SWAPO leaders are inaudibly garbled. The style is awkward and often inappropriate for the content. There is a long and tedious clip of a Central Committee member reading from a prepared statement; soon you no longer hear him and become fascinated with a child listening so intently behind him.

On the other hand, the shaky camera takes in some important scenes — important, at least, to anyone who can make sense of them. For example, we watch SWAPO organizers squeeze together atop a makeshift platform to address a large gathering of Africans dressed in their simple but brightly colored clothing, some sitting on parked cars for a better view, others in trees to get some relief from the sun. The audience members listen to the speeches blared through a megaphone and respond with fists in the air and shouts of SWAPO!" and "Africa." Some whites are conspicuously present, especially the Special Branch police, taking note of who is saying what. This is a "public meeting," presented here in much more detail than in FREE NAMIBIA, yet the background of that meeting is unexplained. The film does not explain that it was through hundreds of these public meetings, held every weekend since 1960 in various towns throughout the country, that SWAPO became known to and supported by the majority of Namibians. The chance to make the point is missed, and it is a crucially significant one, especially if UN-supervised elections ever materialize.

Similarly, this film provides an interesting tour of the Katutura location, Windhoek's Soweto. We see rows of numbered barracks, men walking or busing to their jobs in the whites' part of town, and women toiling at home. There is a story behind this Katutura. The government attempted in 1959 to break up this African community on the outskirts of Windhoek and ship its residents out to a more remote location. Sam Nujoma and others led a resistance to the move, and there was a confrontation and ensuing massacre. This was the birth of the movement, SWAPO. But this story goes untold in the film. Katutura appears as a name and no more. Thus, to anyone who already knows SWAPO's history, the film is fascinating; to those who would want to be educated about Namibian liberation struggles, the film is only confusing.

NAMIBIA: A CASE STUDY IN COLONIALISM is also recommended only for those already acquainted with SWAPO and the present struggle in Namibia. In roughly 20 minutes this film gives a concise history of Namibia, beginning with German colonization in the 1880s. The colonizers manipulated tribal rivalries to decimate the Hereros and defeat the Namas. That historical fact becomes noteworthy since the South Africans, playing the same game today, have similarly appointed their own "responsible" tribal leaders. The South African claim is then that SWAPO is an exclusively Ovambo organization seeking Ovambo hegemony over the other tribes. South Africa took over Namibia on a League of Nations mandate and later defied the subsequent UN order to give up the country. This fact explains the UN's special concern over Namibia's future, and indicates some of the background to this UN-sponsored film.

But the Namibians get lost in their own history. Using documentary footage and old still photos, NAMIBIA: A CASE STUDY IN COLONIALISM portrays a subjugated people, not in the intimate gut-wrenching manner of LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA, but from a distance. There is some mention of those Namibians who fought the German colonizers. Yet the adversaries to the South African occupation are presented as outsiders. First, the UN represents the international community's protest. Then, SWAPO is represented by a brief message from President Sam Nujoma. He is seen sitting in what appears to be a New York City hotel room and his speech is tacked on at the film's end. With the film's flight of focus from Namibia, it appeals to a sense of moral outrage rather than respect for the practical necessity of fighting back inside the colonized land.

That is why LIBERATION STRUGGLE IN NAMIBIA is such an important film. It is the moral, even religious, convictions of Namibians themselves which count, realized through the not very pious tasks of a guerrilla war, The argument in that film for armed struggle is provocative for an audience not already committed to the idea. That argument, presented by this film, is especially convincing when put in the context laid out by FREE NAMIBIA. Such a double-bill, with connections made by a speaker with something to say, would provide the clearest picture of the Namibian revolution for anyone with a couple of hours, a couple of dollars, and as much as a passing interest in what is going on today in Southern Africa.


Distribution: FREE NAMIBIA and NAMIBIA: A CASE STUDY IN COLONIALISM from San Francisco Newsreel, 630 Natoma St. San Francisco CA 94103. LIBERATION STRUGGLE IN NAMIBIA from SWAPO, 801 Second Aye, Room 1401, NY, NY 10017. NAMIBIA: THE PEOPLE ARMED from SWAPO, 188 N. Gower St. London NW1 2NB, England.