Dilemma, apartheid’s lost film

CD Anderson

The anti-apartheid film Dilemma (also known as A World of Strangers) is based on a novel by Nadine Gordimer, that depicts divisions and boundaries between ordinary South Africans during the early years of apartheid. The novel was banned in South Africa for 12 years.

Filmed in South Africa by renowned Danish documentarian Henning Carlsen in 1962, the gritty black-and-white drama was filmed in secret. It offered international audiences their first glimpse behind the veil of how apartheid was taking its toll on the country.

At the time, Carlsen had arrived in South Africa with a small film crew, telling government officials he was in the country to film a documentary about South African music and, bizarrely, “an industrial film about South African housewives and their refrigerators”, according to a 2013 blog post.

Instead, he gathered a group of local actors, included Zakes Mokae and Evelyn Frank, to tell the story of Toby (Ivan Jackson), a wide-eyed young businessman facing difficult choices in a country in turmoil.

At first oblivious to the deep-seated racial prejudices of white South Africans, Toby befriends an anti-apartheid activist (Frank) and a black South African (Mokae). Both of them, through a number of fervent discussions and clandestine visits to townships, open his eyes to the oppression of the system.

The harsh realities of this divided society force him to choose between living a blissfully unaware middle class life in the suburbs or using his influence to change the system. It is a choice that itself, ultimately, has tragic consequences.

Dilemma was secretly shot at various private locations around Johannesburg and Soweto, including the affluent white suburb of Sandringham and assorted Soweto shebeens. Carlsen smuggled completed film reels out of South Africa through the Danish embassy, according to the 2013 blog post, written on behalf of Frank’s son, Eddie Frank.

For a detailed account of the making of the film, read the blog.

In the film’s hauntingly striking opening scene, a hurried early morning commute out of the smoky haze of Soweto, accompanied by a frantic African jazz percussion soundtrack, contains jarring juxtapositions of everyday life in 1960s apartheid South Africa.

Between gritty, fly-on-the-wall depictions of South African life, Dilemma contains a host of great South African music supplied by legendary jazz pianist Gideon “Mgibe” Nxumalo. There are also performances by Tandi Mpambane (Klaasen), Abigail Kubeka, Kippie Moeketsi and Wanda Makhubu.

In 2008, the film’s music-rich shebeen scenes were featured in the Jazz Scores exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art, which celebrated jazz music and its role in film and politics. The New York Times hailed the film as “a crown jewel” of South African musical authenticity and heritage.

Similar to the work of 1960s American independent cinéma vérité filmmaker John Cassavetes, Dilemma mixes ironic humour with powerful, visual elements. The improvised, urgent acting is passionate yet realistic, particularly from Mokae. He went on to build a long, illustrious career as a character actor in Hollywood until his death in 2009.

Frank left South Africa shortly after the film was made, to become a respected theatre actress in Europe and the United States.

Carlsen became one of Denmark’s most revered filmmakers, making films such as the award-winning social realism film The Hunger (1966) and a film version of the Gabriel García Márquez novella Memories of my Melancholy Whores in 2012. Carlsen died in 2014.

Gordimer, Carlsen, Mokae and Frank reunited in 1996 to commemorate the making of the film for a Danish television documentary, titled Revisiting Johannesburg.

Watch scenes from the film Dilemma, courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival YouTube page.



A viewing and discussion of the film’s music scenes will be held at the Alliance Française Johannesburg during the September Jive South African musical heritage exhibition on 16 September 2016. For more details, visit the exhibition web page.

Source: Tusker Geographica blog

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