TELEVISION / Faith in miracles: Thomas Sutcliffe on a documentary about the thriving independent churches of South Africa

Click to follow
SOME directors give their films jaunty titles which underplay the substance of the film. Not Don Boyd. He called his film about non-aligned churches in South Africa 'Man, God and Africa' (C4), which could hardly be described as judicious understatement. It may have been that this was an attempt to force the untidy abundance of his film into a neat package of grand themes, because the casual viewer of his film wouldn't otherwise have had much notion as to which direction we were supposed to be travelling in. Whichever way we were going it wasn't exactly a smooth journey, bouncing the viewer between irritation and admiration.

Irritation because of the oddly ingenuous tone to the narration. 'Imagine what it must have been like,' Boyd said, over footage of a young black boy sitting in a tin tub, 'for young Godfrey Lyon and his mother Elizabeth to have been confronted by a film director, cameraman, sound recorder and assistant, while he was having his Sunday morning bath before attending church.' But why should I imagine it? This sounds like the voice of a man startled to find himself making a documentary, ill-at-ease with the camera and temporarily forgetful of the real reason for his intrusion. Elsewhere too there was an awkwardness about the interviewing which soon began to grate. I lost count of the questions that began 'Tell me a little bit about . . . ' because I started to count sequences that began 'I asked him about . . . '. At other times Boyd sounded positively bashful. 'Er, your Grace, just to start the thing rolling . . . ' said his off-screen voice at the beginning of an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Admiration, though, because of the splendour of some of his images and the window he opened onto a relatively little-known world, that of the independent native churches of South Africa. These range from tiny establishments with a handful of worshippers to the vast militaristic Zion Christian Church but they all adapt Christian theology to specifically African forms of worship. This can look distinctly unconventional to Anglican eyes - the rough treatment meted out to one worshipper during a healing ceremony would have resulted in riot police being called to an English church. Boyd captured the emotional tension of this scene with a wildly swinging camera which seemed to have joined the worship and then fretted on the soundtrack about what he had observed.

The leaders of the official churches in South Africa were worried too, seeing in the success of the non-aligned churches an implicit criticism of their own failure to deliver forms of worship which met African needs. What they didn't do was express suspicions about the worldly ambitions which might have fuelled the foundation of so many tiny sects or question the validity of rituals which offered a grab-bag of animism, healing and Christianity. Boyd seems to have been swayed by this away from his own doubts. In a newspaper article about making the film he revealed that his crew had been attacked while filming a huge gathering of the Zion Christian Church but nothing of that incident made it onto the screen or the narration.

This betrayed a different sort of bashfulness, that of bad conscience. It's frankly inconceivable that a documentary crew could be beaten up by members of a sect in England or America and simply not mention it in the film they made. If the faces here had been white we would have been invited to laugh or recoil; as it was we were invited to admire the resilience of the spirit. That sort of double-standard, however benign, seems an odd way to assuage the injustices of apartheid.