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New film chronicles South Africa's 'Peace Train' through music and dance
Diplomatic Pouch / August 24, 2015

By Larry Luxner

More than two decades after the fall of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black president, a joyful new film tells how a handful of brave South Africans fought racial injustice with little more than music and determination.

“When Voices Meet” is an 83-minute documentary starring Tony award-winning actor John Kani, along with Abigail Kubeka, Sharon Katz, Nonhlanhla Wanda and the cast of The Peace Train.

The movie made its U.S. debut Aug. 21, in Washington at the World Music & Independent Film Festival, to be held at U.S. Navy Memorial Museum’s Burke Theater.

“This project was born out of a desire to share the story of The Peace Train,” said Sharon Katz, a white South African Jewish guitarist and bandleader who was born and raised in Port Elizabeth. “We went back after 20 years to collect footage and interview the members of the choir that had originally sung together and traveled together.”

Katz, who sings in English, Xhosa, Zulu and half a dozen other languages, told the Diplomatic Pouch she used to visit South Africa’s black townships as a teenager opposed to the “horrific” apartheid laws then used to separate the races. In 1978, she spent a year in Lesotho, moving to Philadelphia in 1981 to study music therapy.

“When Mandela was released from prison, I went back to South Africa and started the Peace Train project,” she recalled. “I met Mandela on his 75th birthday. I told him about my dream of bringing together children of different races and cultures, to break down stereotypes. Mandela was trying to unite people in a ‘Rainbow Nation,’ so he was delighted to hear of my plan for a 500-voice choir. He gave me his blessing.”

Katz and her friend, singer Nonhlanhla Wanda, defied all the rules to lead 500 black, white, colored and Indian children on a two-week train adventure from Durban to Cape Town in a valiant effort to break through the barriers of apartheid.

“The laws were just changing then. South African Railways was still run by the old regime, and while they couldn’t really stop us, they put up every single obstacle they could possibly think of,” she recalled. “We were threatened from both sides, the far left and the far right. It was a really wild thing to do, and everybody knew it.”

Yet the divided country — then on the brink of civil war — opened its hearts to these children, who sang their way into the consciousness of a society determined to transition peacefully to democracy.

The film’s U.S. premiere will be hosted by Nowetu Luti, deputy chief of mission at the South African Embassy in Washington. It’s already been nominated for three awards and has been selected for screening at a dozen film festivals in Chicago, Toronto, New York and elsewhere.

Katz, who earns a living by performing and teaching, said “When Voices Meet” cost about $100,000 to produce — including video editing and trips to South Africa.

“It’s mixed together with a whole lot of archival footage,” she said. “We’re probably never going to recoup our expenses, but you make such a film because you want to tell the story. For me, it’s never been about commercial success.”

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