MOVIES : 'Sarafina!' in a Brave New World : Five years ago, the anti-apartheid musical appealed to the emotions; now comes the film, which also taps into the mind

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

The world has changed radically in the five years since the South African musical "Sarafina!" first hit the Broadway stage. The Soviet Union has collapsed. The Berlin Wall is gone. And, in the wake of the release of jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, the Parliament of South Africa abolished the laws mandating separation of the races.

As history has evolved, so did the film version of "Sarafina!"

"Though our project is still confrontational and angry, it's told with more hope and a spirit of reconciliation," observes Darrell James Roodt, the director of the $8-million project, which is being released in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. "With the advantage of hindsight, it's the same story--but completely different."

In more ways than one. On stage, "Sarafina!" creator Mbongeni Ngema relied on a simplistic play-within-a-play structure and the force of emotion to hit home the evils of apartheid. On screen, he and co-writer William Nicholson broadened the scope--strengthening the narrative, fleshing out the characterizations, injecting an intellectual element missing from the original.

The tale takes place in the black township of Soweto 10 years after the bloody 1976 riots--a four-day incident triggered by a government regulation requiring the use of the hated Afrikaans language in the classroom. It is told through the voice of a naive young black girl (21-year-old Leleti Khumalo, repeating her Tony-nominated stage performance) who fantasizes about a show business career and, on a grander scale, the freedom of her hero Mandela. Caught up in the schoolchildren's resistance--during which thousands of students were detained and many tortured and killed--she's forced to examine both her principles and her politics.

Music and dance, a unifying force in the liberation movement, are interspersed throughout--with some help from South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and choreographer Michael Peters, who is known for his work on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Thriller" videos. Though the musical numbers shoulder less of the burden in the film than in the play, their very presence made "Sarafina!" a tougher sell.

"Musicals are a dinosaur, an oddity," Roodt points out. "And 'Sarafina!'--a political musical--is even stranger. Breaking into song during a thought-provoking political sequence is crazy. Though 'Cabaret' comes the closest, we had no real point of reference. We were shooting in the dark."

Producer Anant Singh acquired the rights to the Broadway hit a few years ago, after it captured five 1988 Tony nominations, including one for best musical. When the major studios turned the screenplay down flat, he financed it independently through the British Broadcasting Corp. and Revcom, a French company. It wasn't until the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, when Singh lined up Whoopi Goldberg to play the role of Sarafina's inspirational teacher, that Hollywood began to take note.

After Miramax saw 40 minutes of the film in February, it picked up the North American rights and pledged $5 million for prints and advertising. In May, when the movie received a lengthy standing ovation at the 1992 Cannes festival, Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg approached Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, and offered to distribute the film.

"Two heads, two wallets are better than one," Weinstein says. "The Disney marketing machine could get it to a greater audience, especially the kids. Our strength is the upscale adult end of the spectrum."

Making a virtue out of necessity, the cost-conscious filmmakers placed a premium on authenticity. South African singer Miriam Makeba, who plays Sarafina's mother in the film, was a real-life exile, denied permission to enter the country when she attempted to return for her mother's funeral in 1960. Many "Sarafina!" extras and a number of featured actors were participants in the student resistance, which was credited, in part, with Mandela's release.

"This isn't 'A World Apart,' 'A Dry White Season,' a 'Cry Freedom!' " says Singh, a 34-year-old third-generation South African Indian, referring to previous cinematic treatments of apartheid.

"Why must all stories about black oppression be told from a white point of view? When people ask me why there is no good white in the movie, I tell them that this is one movie that isn't about whites. Many of the actors have been arrested, had the police break down their doors in the middle of the night. Almost everyone had either first- or secondhand experience with the movement. The kids in the cast were performing what they lived."

Leleti Khumalo is a case in point--and one of the rare stage actresses to accompany a hit play from Broadway to the screen. One of four children born into a poor Durban family, she was raised in a house with no chairs and one bed. Acting aspirations led her to a dance class, where she was "discovered" by a director searching for young local talent.

" Sarafina!' is my story," Khumalo says. Dressed in yellow stretch pants and a brightly colored floral print blouse, she exudes the same radiance and composure that illuminates the screen. "I grew up in a community where everyone was talking 'Mandela, Mandela, Mandela'--he was like a god to me. Last year, the Zulus brutalized my brother, shot him in the thigh when he refused to join their cause. That's one of the reasons why I'm so happy to do this film. It's like fighting--but in another way . . . communicating instead of burning buildings."

Director Roodt is also an "insider"--a white Johannesburg native who made a name for himself directing hard-hitting films such as the critically acclaimed "Place of Weeping" and the anti-war movie "The Stick," which was banned in South Africa for two years. "Movies are a mirror of the society," he explains in the "Sarafina!" production notes. "Spielberg wouldn't be making the type of films he does if he lived in South Africa."

Roodt says it was an uphill battle convincing the producers that a South African--not the hot British or American directors they were eyeing--should be at the helm. Even harder was gaining the trust of the mostly black cast.

"There was a lot of suspicion from the kids," recalls the 30-year-old director, running his hands through a shock of prematurely gray hair. "I told them that you don't have to be black to understand the plight of blacks in South Africa, what it must be like to be young and have your aspirations crash because of the social environment. The film's message, I pointed out, is a universal one. The tragedy of apartheid creates a series of dilemmas for whites as well as blacks."

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Whoopi Goldberg, whom the filmmakers say is the first African-American actress to shoot a film in South Africa, was herself embroiled in a political tug of war. Though she was welcomed by Mandela's African National Congress, which maintained that the cultural boycott had ended, two smaller, radical black groups vying for power said it was too soon to open the doors.

"It was an eye-opening experience for Whoopi," Roodt recalls. "She was thrown into the deep end and had to swim. South Africa, she found out, is a much more complicated situation than she had thought. Whites here aren't always the bad guys; in fact, since apartheid is thrust on our doorsteps every bloody day of our lives, we're more enlightened about racism than other whites. Blacks perpetrate violence on blacks. Nothing in this country is cut and dry."

Filming in Soweto would have been impossible before Mandela was freed in February, 1990, and even last November there were risks. Talks between the black majority and the De Klerk regime were initiated nearly a year ago, but the country remains a powder keg. Constitutional negotiations were suspended in June after a massacre in the Boipatong township. Last week army troops in the nominally independent black homeland of Ciskei shot at a throng of ANC supporters, killing nearly 30 and injuring 200. Given Soweto's inflammatory past, dressing blacks in uniforms and simulating armed resistance was chancy. All military vehicles in the film displayed the "Sarafina!" insignia to distinguish them from the real thing.

Though some of the film's violence was snipped to ensure a PG rating, questions about the use of force remain at the heart of the film. At what point are decent individuals pushed too far? When the system turns a deaf ear, is it justifiable to pick up arms? No single answer is put forth. Makeba's character, a woman who has lived with and worked for a white family for 32 years, symbolizes passive resistance. Goldberg's teacher hates violence but refuses to "stand aside and let others fight." Sarafina ultimately takes part in the burning of a black informer--a dramatic turning point in her life.

Asked whether she, herself, could be moved to violence, Khumalo goes mum. "Yes," she says, after a long pause. "The laws are off the books, but white people are still racist. Though Mandela is out of jail, he's old and alone and can't do everything himself. The film is about hope, about not giving up; but maybe, at some point, violence is the only thing left."

Roodt agrees: "Picking up an AK-47 to kill numbs you but may sometimes be acceptable in the greater scheme of things. Your humanity may have to be sacrificed for a greater good. It's impossible to say. Issues like these are elusive and shadowy because the goal posts are always moving."

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The message put forth in "Sarafina!" acquires particular significance in Los Angeles, a few short months after the uprising provoked by the Rodney G. King verdict. Long-simmering inequities are in sharper focus. A burgeoning underclass has struck back. When the movie was shown at the AFI Film Festival in June, the filmmakers dedicated the program to this city "in a gesture of concern and healing."

Roodt acknowledges dramatic differences between South Africa and Los Angeles but points to some parallels as well.

"Driving through South-Central is like driving through Soweto . . . no sign of hope, no ambition, no future," he says. "The brutality of the police patrols also reminded me of the security forces back home. The riots exposed the myth of democracy in America and brought the city to its knees. Watching it all on the South African news seemed like a cruel joke--one that history plays on all of us."

Producer Singh points to the way Los Angeles looters struck out at their own--just as the students in "Sarafina!" set fire to their schools. "The (inner city) stores and the schools both represented 'the Establishment,' " he explains. "When people are angry, they lash out at what's closest. It's not a rational thing."

Roodt and Singh will team again on "Lightning Bird," based on a book by Layall Watson. Described by the producer as a " 'Dances With Wolves' in Africa," it's the true story of a 16-year-old Englishman who sets off for the bush and is taken in by one of the tribes. The movie is expected to start shooting next fall.

If "Sarafina!" takes off, the director hopes it will serve as a springboard. "If you're interested in space exploration, you go to NASA," he says with a smile. "Everyone wants to make films in Hollywood."

Khumalo, currently cutting a solo album, calls her "Sarafina!" days "a dream." Still, she rejects any thoughts of abandoning her homeland.

"South Africa is a beautiful country," she says, flashing an iridescent smile, "and we've seen a little progress--a little. My spirit inside says things will change . . . and I wouldn't want to miss that day."

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