Joe Berlinger won’t be able to make it to the Sarasota Film Festival this year because of work on another film, but he was able to speak with us today about his documentary Under African Skies, which will serve as one of the festival’s tentpole films this year. The movie is the Closing Night Film this year (even though it screens on April 21, the night before the festival technically ends). Berlinger made the film in cooperation with legendary musician Paul Simon to recognize the 25th anniversary of the Graceland album. But as Berlinger has done in other acclaimed documentaries the Some Kind of Monster, which chronicled the near disintegration of Metallica during the recording of St. Anger, the director was determined to make a music film about more than music. Under African Skies, which already met with acclaim at Sundance, explores the controversy of recording Graceland in South Africa despite an international boycott.
Have you always been interested in the story of Graceland?
I’m 50 now, and I was 25 when the record came out. It was immediately a record that I loved, and it is on my all-time favorite list of records. There are certain classic records you can listen to over and over again: Metallica’s black album, The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed. I put Graceland there, and I know that makes it an eclectic list to include Paul Simon, but that’s the way I am. Certain records you can listen to over and over again and hear something new you didn’t hear before. But I was also a very politically aware 25-year-old. I participated in the anti-apartheid movement. I distinctly remember when record first came out, I was quizzical about the criticism leveled at Paul’s recording of the record in South Africa. I didn’t agree with criticism of record. I was puzzled by it.
How did you get involved in making the film?
This project was not one I initiated. Sony basically realized it was the 25th anniversary of Graceland. They spoke to Paul about a rerelease or boxed set and the idea was generated to do a documentary. my name came up as someone to do it. I met with paul in March 2011, and I sat down with much trepidation because I was not interested in doing a Paul Simon puff piece. If we were going to make a film, I wanted to explore the political story, and deeply explore the dissection of how music was made. Without naming names, watching a film about music without a deeper story is not a satisfying music film. After my Metallica film, I turned down chances to make another music film because I din’t think they would make a satisfying cinematic experience, I like to tell a deeper, more important, story. The album was revolutionary. Obviously, a category of world music existed before paul simon, but he ushered and brought it to the masses. I wanted to explore that story, and the backlash against the record. Fortunately, Paul was on same page. He didn’t want to avoid controversy. It was refreshing.
Now that you have done the film, do you better understand the criticisms against Simon?
I certainly understand both sides. I think the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t take a point of view. I certainly have a deeper understanding of what criticism was about without necessarily agreeing with it. But clearly the film, in addition to being about the making of music and what that meant, it explores idea of the role of an artist in society and the durability of artistic achievement. Some remember the music but have forgotten the controversy. It continues to be discovered by future generations.
Was it most important to dig through archival footage or shoot new interviews?
There is a wealth of archival footage never really been seen before, but the heart and soul of the film is the 10-day trip to South Africa that Paul Simon and I took. We went speaking with political and musical icons to comment on the record and the politics. But the heart and soul is the present tense journey. It is both a literal journey which reunites Paul with these musicians he worked with before, and it’s an emotional journey, as he reconnects with the criticism of the recording of the record and the tour engendered. The most important example of that is an interview with Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid. It wasn’t planned; it spontaneously happened, and he and Paul sit down together and exchange points of view on whether Paul broke the cultural boycott, and if that was bad or good. It’s a very rich exchange.
Do you think Paul Simon’s actions actually contributed to the end of apartheid?
I think art played a huge role in helping to end apartheid. I think the social and economic political boycott of the country is one of the few examples in human history where that isolation was hugely successful. Boycotts are often hurting people and are unsuccessful. This was a hugely successful boycott. I also think Paul’s record and subsequent tour helped to usher in the end of an era. I don’t what to load too much importance on the record and tour, but it was a great artistic achievement of the tour, in particular. The tour was also picketed and protested. I happen to think the tour was a very important anti-apartheid tool. What paul, in my opinion, was doing, was exporting the very culture that the apartheid regime was trying to crush and extinguish. I think the Graceland tour and experience humanized the victims of apartheid, and that was a very important message. I think intellectually, everybody knew apartheid was bad, and people knew it existed and was an immoral system, but when you see black and white musicians on stage interacting in a cross-cultural way, instead of just knowing intellectually it’s wrong, you feel it. That was the achievement of the tour.