You are on page 1of 11

Nasreen Badrodien

Film in Africa Essay 1
April 22, 2016
Clarien Luttig
When looking at A Lion’s Trail (François Verster, 2002) as a complete
documentary, one might recognise it - like Rian Malan states in Verster’s
documentary - as a “crusade for justice.” 1 Verster juxtaposes the pilfering
of marginalised people’s legal rights and the white-washing of moral and
ethical duties owed to those said people. However, by focusing on specific
scenes, it is possible to analyse the way in which Verster composes and
edits the documentary to illustrate the politics of Solomon Linda’s music
that was appropriated and the effect that process had on future
generations. While using music as an emotive device to both expose the
politics of African ‘traditional’ music and engage with his audience on a
personal level, Verster’s editing can be seen as political too by invoking
sympathy and abhorrence through humanising and demonising certain
individuals. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to examine specific
scenes from A Lion’s Trail to consider the relationship between Verster’s
documentary style and the music and politics within the documentary to
reveal narrative trajectories and physically communicate a certain time
and place.
“Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh. In the jungle, the mighty
jungle, the lion sleeps
tonight. In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the
lion sleeps tonight.”2

When seeing these world-famous lyrics that have been reconstructed and
re-used over 100 times, it is almost impossible to read the words and not
sing them. One automatically associates these lyrics with The Lion King
(Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) but rarely associate the tune or
melody with Mbube (Solomon Linda, 1939). This disparity is not only a
1 A Lion’s Trail, 2002. DVD. South Africa: François Verster.
2 “The Lion Sleep’s Tonight Lyrics,” Metro Lyrics, accessed April 13, 2016,
http://www.metrolyrics.com/
1

His significant contribution to documentary filmmaking is his long term dedication and pursuit for the truth. speaking volumes about the director more than his film. is a renowned director in South Africa. 1999) along with Rian Malan’s Rolling Stones article (2000) were the launch pad in gaining consensus amongst South Africans and foreigners for Linda’s cause. his presence is felt through his stance and editing. http://www.pbs. But Verster’s second documentary regarding Linda caught the attention of the masses and won four awards in 2003 for best documentary. Verster is known for filming very personal subjects and engaging with his audience on a personal and intimate level. a UCT alumnus. He did not yet know how septic the truth was. perhaps the world over.product of global politics and inequality. 4 When approached to make a film regarding the origin of The Lion Sleeps Tonight (1961). 2016. tracing the origin of the song and the composer who instigated Wimoweh (1952) and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. winning numerous awards for his documentaries such as The Mothers’ House (2005) and When the War is Over (2002). University of Cape Town. but also because of an imbalance of power within the global political arena. resulting in injustices being overlooked. or rather innocence. Verster. Verster’s first attempt at gaining the public’s awareness of this great injustice – The Story of Mbube (Verster.3 While he is not intrusive in his documentaries. University of Cape Town. accessed April 13. 2016.html 2 . He was fascinated by his own research and was devoted to A Lion’s Trail from the moment he realised how many songs have Mbube’s DNA.” Public Broadcasting Service: Independent Lens.org/independentlens/lionstrail/film. Despite many scholars concerns regarding documentary films and its director’s objectivity. 4 Film Tutorial. Verster was intrigued by his ignorance.5 3 Film Tutorial. He set forth to erect an award-winning piece. 2016. 5 “A Lion’s Trail.

9 Ward. 7 Film Tutorial. “Defining Documentary.9 Paul Ward refers to Grierson’s six typologies. but allows his subjects freedom of speech and unscripted dialogue. time and place splicing and slicing and manipulation of content for emphasis.” p8. followed by visual images and footage. Verster uses music and visible commentary instead. observational. documentaries lack objectivity while simultaneously having it. or rather tendencies and approaches to documentary filmmaking.”6 This means showing reality in a creative way by constructing a story through your argument. University of Cape Town. 6. Verster lets his interviewees speak for themselves while at the same time pushing his narrative forward by showing how political the personal is and how politics affects the everyday life. performative and poetic modes. documentary storytelling is the “creative interpretation of actuality. which makes staging unavoidable.According to John Grierson. “Defining Documentary. He uses expository mode to make his argument and is associated with most documentary films that aim to be informative. Eventually. namely expository.7 Documentary storytelling is a nonfiction piece that may or may not take on stylistic elements of fictional films such as a three act structure.” In Documentary: The Margins of Reality. He describes expository. An example of this contradiction is when a director decides where to point his camera or how to edit a film. participatory. “Defining Documentary. 2016. 2005. Verster utilises three of these six approaches. reflexive.” 8. reflexive and participatory. What troubles most people is that some of these dialogues would not be vocalised if a camera was not present. Great Britain: Wallflower Press. 3 . This mode of documentary storytelling uses allegations and evidence to reiterate points in the director’s argument.10 While this mode usually uses a voice over. 8 The narrative is not fabricated but exists in the real world and so does the people being filmed. 8 Ward. 6 Paul Ward.

Linda died a poor man and his family could not afford a tombstone for many years. 4 .14 After 1990.The reflexive mode allows the audience to be aware of the films construction of reality and brings to our attention the style of this storytelling.meridianstories. 2016. The participatory mode “emphasizes the interaction between filmmaker and subjects.” 13 “A Lion’s Trail. Verster uses archival footage and the documentary is relatively self conscious because of the lack of linear timelines and switching between different modes. http://www.11 Verster juxtaposes America and South Africa with the intention of showing how many ‘western’ citizens would assimilate Brooklyn with Soweto. 13 Because of this disparity.” Meridian Stores.” 12 “Six Principle Modes. filmmakers were now able to make documentaries without being censored or 10 “Six Principle Modes of Documentary Storytelling. While most film makers directly participate in this mode. when the political environment in South Africa was heading towards change. 2002. accessed April 13. and his perspective is evident in his editing. hence Linda signing over his song to Gallo Records for ten shillings and could not collect royalties on any of their compositions. He uses sepia filters to recreate the past.”12 This mode uses excessive interviews and direct involvement which observes subjects and allows for intimate character portraits to develop through consistent screening time as seen with the Linda sisters.” 14 A Lion’s Trail. This highlights the very construction of the film. Under Apartheid law Black people were denied the right to own copyrights for their music. Verster remains ‘objective’ implementing a manner of cinema verité.com/media-resourcecollection/creative-how-to-guides/six-principal-modes-of-documentaryfilmmaking/ 11 “Six Principle Modes.

The first scene to be analysed is the opening scene of Verster’s documentary. affording underprivileged. “Redefining the Political. Mbube continues playing and a text against a black background appears on the screen recounting the composer of the song playing and the time period it originated in. “Redefining the Political. Botha. The past comes hand-in-hand with politics in documentaries which impacts the content of the film and allows the audience to explore the subjects and their own identity in an engaged manner. The idealised ‘western’ view of Africa is portrayed with the images of huts and women in their African garbs in sepia. This idea of Africa as ‘primitive’ is reiterated through stock footage of Africans and the landscape. 16 Verster. 2007). “Redefining the Political: A Short Overview and Some Thoughts on Personal Documentary Films from the New South Africa.” 112. truth and art” 17 which amalgamate through documentary modes of storytelling and is evident in A Lion’s Trail. Verster manages to take us back in time with the grainy images on screen and the diegetic African vocals of Mbube in the background. P. previously marginalised people to reveal their personal stories and experiences.15 This allows Verster to use the past as a focal point in making his argument as Linda’s circumstances were a product of Apartheid which allowed foreigners to implement western cultural assimilation or exploit African talents and plagiarise without consequence. 16 Verster refers to a “nexus” of documentary film being “politics. 15 Francois Verster. 5 .refrained from publically screening their work. giving context to the song but also distancing the song from the composer. 17 Verster.” In Marginal Lives and Painful Pasts: South African Cinema After Apartheid. A lot of films were made in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ed. dated footage. zooming in to the ‘Cape Province’ – setting the scene for the audience. The viewer experiences newsreel-like footage as an old map of South Africa appears on screen.” 111. (Cape Town: Genugtig!. 110. M. illustrating the natives as shield bearers and animal cloth wearers.

The song remains playing while another text suggests to the viewer two reasons of the songs origin: Praising the lion mother and killing a lion cub. 6 . open land and Zulu warriors is juxtaposed with other scenes throughout the documentary subtly insinuating an idea of separate realities between the victims of cultural appropriation and the appropriators. This stock footage of wild animals. earthy hues of the ‘pride land’ 20 engaging the audience in nostalgia for their childhood as their thoughts are automatically moved to a still frame of the open land in The Lion King. 2002. rural Africa in the early part of the 20 th century. 2002. connecting the first scene to the rest of the narrative. Verster captures a wide lens shot of the landscape resembling a scene from The Lion King while Mbube is coming to a close.”19 This intertext is the heart of the documentary. but he would be forgotten. 2002 19 A Lion’s Trail.Throughout the film there is footage of a lion running across a veld – not only to reflect the purpose of A Lion’s Trail and Mbube but also to show Africans what the rest of the world thought and thinks of Africa and its people. The continuation of the song Mbube throughout this scene commemorates African artistic legacy and musical lineage while foreboding the politics of the very song playing. Verster employs chiaroscuro lighting in this sequence to elicit and enhance the natural. By juxtaposing these specific settings the film indicates to the audience that this narrative is stuck between an Apartheid past and the development of Africa towards a third world country but 18 A Lion’s Trail. dated and contemporary urban Africa and the developed ‘West’. The documentary occupies three main spaces or settings. At the end of this first scene. 20 A Lion’s Trail. 18 “Linda’s song would become known all around the world. This editing can be seen as manipulative but also political as the audience begins to relate the actuality of Africa to Hollywood and Disney films.

the Linda sisters indicate how personal politics is. but what was once a happy song now makes them 21 A Lion’s Trail. or at the time. 22 A Lion’s Trail. The empathetic view of them is what makes the audience care as we see their conditions before we know why they are in those circumstances.more importantly it takes use to the very point of Verster’s documentary. This is evident when we see their poverty despite being “reimbursed”. 2002. transporting of communal African resources across the globe for economic incentive. The Linda sisters sing Mbube. and how Mbube travelled via this virtual train to London and America. The Linda sisters get a lot of screening time which is shown in real-time and is juxtaposed with dated footage. and the effect politics of music has on the everyday life. Through Verster’s documentary methods. The legacy of their injustice is repeated throughout the film as we see continuous suffering. These scenes become particularly important in analysing the relationship between music and politics in A Lion’s Trail. the audience feels obligated to hate everyone that robbed Linda of his worldwide legacy that was due to him.21 The next sequence to be analysed is the use of the train to connect urban and rural spaces and the developing East with the developed West. They could not afford a tombstone for their father and according to one sister who is a sangoma. the theme of duality and disparity. They are humanised to such an extent that when Adelaide passes away.22 Verster spends a lot of time documenting the Linda sisters. This reflects Linda’s travel to the city to record Mbube. 2002. Linda is troubled even in death. Verster is once again present here as most South Africans used trains to get from rural Africa to urban city centres. This train is a metaphor for the economic realities of South Africa and the politics of transnational plagiarism. 7 .

“While it seeks to obtain justice for a man marginalised by his status as a black African musician in a racist and exploitative environment. 2002. but. as a whole.23 Another important scene in the film is the juxtaposition of glossy stock footage of George David Weiss on a show taking credit for the melody of The Lion Sleeps Tonight . This reiterates how he refuses to take responsibility and cheapens the idea of him. crippling guilt . Language is important element in the Linda sisters’ sequences as it invokes a sense of truth and authenticity. 8 . His refusal to participate in this documentary demonised him through a mere intertext stating his lack of co operation. Not only is Linda reduced to a cardboard cut-out Zulu cliché by the documentary’s main framing device.cry. in its eagerness to award Solomon Linda the status he rightly deserves. his persona as “the great white saviour” is problematic. Weiss’s arrogance is the smallest contributor to his villain character. Despite bringing attention to the plight of Linda’s legacy of his daughters he sets Africa back ten years.and Pete Siegel commenting on the appropriation of Mbube’s melody. removing him from his humanity and emotionally distancing him from Linda’s story. just a universal grudge against him. 2002. the film falls into the trap of utilising the same reductionist discourse. 23 A Lion’s Trail. they did not acknowledge the source of this global phenomenon. 24 Verster’s inclusion of Malan as the protagonist and hero of the documentary is a point of debate. appears sincere at Adelaide’s funeral and has pursued justice without obligation. Weiss does not have a face put to those words. While the man has done substantial amount of good in the name of Solomon Linda with his Rolling Stones article. 24 A Lion’s Trail. While Siegel goes from villain to anti-hero.his only contribution to the film possibly due to self-loathing. This editing is political as Siegel is granted ‘immunity’ in the documentary for his previous transgressions against Linda as he has taken responsibility and now blames Weiss for something he has already done – PLAGIARISED! Although they both added lyrics and edited the tune.

accessed April 13. Throughout the film. While Linda may have died a superhero amongst fellow Africans. 77 26 A Lion’s Trail.26 Verster’s ingenious inclusion and display of music is worth the accolades it received. The film accurately shows the musical epidemic Mbube started. Verster lists the songs displayed in the film referencing Linda as the composer and then the performers. Everyone shown in the film either knew Mbube and loved Linda’s singing or appropriated the tune of Mbube. Verster concludes the documentary on a powerful note with all the songs used in the documentary and gave Solomon Linda the due he never received from The Weavers and The Tokens. politics and the politics of music . The Linda sisters and Joseph Shabalala found peace through the song and Siegel and Weiss found money through it. 2016. This element of Verster’s documentary once again shows where the power lies.” Ilha Do Desterro 61 (2011): 77. François Verster uses his documentary storytelling methods to amalgamate music. even in a ‘free South Africa’.” 25 Haupt and Ovesen describe the “buddy system” seen in many films depicting the plight of Black people such as 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Django Unchained (2012) where the Black man only overcomes his difficulties or surpasses inequality with the help of a white man. people were either singing Mbube or versions of it in South Africa and across the world. 9 . copyright laws and musical plagiarism.which to some 25 Adam Haupt. 2002. and Håvard Ovesen. In conclusion. Verster includes Isicathamiya music style to indicate the great influence Linda and his singing style had on the entire African music culture.the character gallery of the film feeds into a very Northern idea of the white man (gendering intended) as proactive and black people as deserving of his help. “Vindicating Capital: Heroes and Villains in A Lion’s Trail. The injustice done to Linda becomes personal for him as he talks about the “injustice being done to us” and “the money we have spent”. he can now rest as a superstar across the world as his music was used to make a political statement about inequality. and that all was not lost through this subjection.

Through the scenes and sequences examined. whether good or bad. Through his documentary. Verster shows how Linda’s song has reached every corner of the world. and touched lives. The documentary juxtaposes the legacy of suffering and the people trying to rectify a wrong done too long ago to entirely fix. [2928] Reference List: 10 . He is precise in his inclusion of people and his editing to affirm his thesis that global politics affects music and in turn politicises art which affects the daily lives of ordinary people. Verster’s mode of storytelling brings together music and politics in almost every scene.appear as a “crusade for justice” – to bring the origin of various versions of a song to the attention of the public.

2005. http://www.” Accessed April 13. Rian. 2016. DVD. 2016. edited by M. 2016. P. 2009. 6-30.” In Documentary: The Margins of Reality.pbs.2011n61p073 Malan.” Accessed April 13. http://www. Accessed April 13.5007/2175-8026.” Last modified April 1.com/media-resourcecollection/creative-how-to-guides/six-principal-modes-of-documentaryfilmmaking/ Metro Lyrics. “Six Principle Modes of Documentary Storytelling.com/the-lion-sleeps-tonight-lyrics-token. Meridian Stores. Accessed April 13. François. “Vindicating Capital: Heroes and Villains in A Lion’s Trail.org/independentlens/lionstrail/film. Cape Town: Genugtig!. Ward.meridianstories.pastemagazine. doi: 10. and Håvard Ovesen. http://www.” Ilha Do Desterro 61 (2011): 73-107.A Lion's Trail.metrolyrics.” In Resident Alien. 107-127. Adam. Johannesburg: Jonathon Ball.html Verster. South Africa: François Verster. 2005. Haupt.com/articles/2005/04/a-lionstrail. “Defining Documentary. “In the Jungle. “A Lion’s Trail. “A Lion’s Trail. Paul. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight Lyrics. 2007. 2002.html Public Broadcasting Service: Independent Lens. Great Britain: Wallflower Press. 11 . 2016. http://www. 2016. 55-82.html Paste Magazine.” In Marginal Lives and Painful Pasts: South African Cinema After Apartheid. “Redefining the Political: A Short Overview and Some Thoughts on Personal Documentary Films from the New South Africa. Botha.” Accessed April 13.