The pre-story of the documentary Mama Africa, currently screening at Hot Docs, is a sad one indeed. Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki was a life-long fan of singer and activist Miriam Makeba and set out to make the definitive documentary biography of her her life and work. At the Q&A following last night’s sold out screening of his film he told the audience that he had spent months and months preparing for the shoot and discussing details with Makeba over the phone. He purchased a plane ticket with plans to fly to Ghana and conduct the first interview with the international star in her kitchen as she went about one of her favourite activities – cooking for friends. Unfortunately just two weeks prior to this planned interview Makeba passed away after a concert in 2008.
Thankfully for worldwide audiences and for the memory of Makeba, Kaurismäki didn’t abandon the project after the sudden passing away of his main character. Shifting from the model of contemporary interviews with Makeba herself, Mika Kaurismäki has made a documentary that is mainly comprised of (often rarely seen) archival footage of Makeba interviews, concerts and personal videos.
While the film takes the fairly standard documentary approach – talking head interview followed by archival footage followed by talking head interview – it is absolutely enthralling to watch. The filmmakers have assembled an incredible caché of archival footage and photography, worked a miracle at remastering the sensational sounds of Makeba and her bandmates, and skilfully edited what will undoubtedly be the definitive documentary biography of the passionately political and tremendously talented Miriam Makeba – known affectionately the world over as “Mama Africa.”
The film follows the interlocking threads of Makeba’s life, where politics and art remained steadfastly at the centre of her career and personal relationships. From her roots as a be-bop singer in South Africa to her exile and rise in stardom in the US, to Makeba’s return to her home continent, Mama Africa chronicles one of history’s most important political activists and artists – the first in fact to address the United Nations in the capacity of artist, when she spoke in 1966 against Apartheid South Africa.
Mama Africa is pleasure from beginning to end, and the filmmakers make sure to explore the deep influence the committed political activist had on both music and politics alike. From her marriage to Stokely Carmichael to her influence with various African leaders to her political speeches at public events and concerts, Mama Africa shows the life and work of a rare breed of popular artists: the kind who chooses principles over profit and who chooses a lifelong commitment to fighting oppression over the hedonistic celebrity life.
Miriam Makeba was a key figure in the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa as well as the Black Power and anti-racism movement in the US – historical facts that, without this important documentary, might be lost on new generations of students, activists, and music fans. Mama Africa shines the light bright on this eponymous figure and ensures we will never underestimate her commitment and contribution – all the while dancing our butts off.