Maybe Judge William Lee can't beat the drum, but he'll beat you at Scrabble if we allow South African place names.
"There is a killer among us. It is killing our wives, our neighbors, and our children. It is HIV. AIDS."
According to the 2007 UNAIDS Report, about 33.2 million people worldwide are living with HIV. Of these, 22.5 million cases are in sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS is the single greatest cause of death. The quick spread of the disease is largely due to the willful ignorance of communities afraid to speak publicly and truthfully about a killer that makes no distinction for race, class, or age. Beat the Drum is the story of how society's attitude can change—one individual at a time.
Facts of the Case
A sickness is sweeping the population in South Africa, affecting cities and villages, killing the rich and the poor. Musa (Junior Singo, Red Dust), a young Zulu boy, does not understand the nature of the sickness, but it has left him an orphan. Together with his grandmother and cousins, he lives modestly in the small village. Musa's only possession is a small drum that his father gave him before he died, which he carries everywhere. The family needs a new cow, so Musa sets off for the big city to find his uncle and to earn some money.
Nobe (Owen Sejake, Shake Hands with the Devil) is the truck driver who reluctantly gives Musa a ride to Johannesburg. He's married with two daughters, but he isn't immune to the temptations that come from a life on the road. Truck-stop prostitutes are a common sight on his route. After Musa is chased away by the owner of the trucking company, he must survive on the mean streets of Johannesburg. Lettie (Noluthando Maleka) is a girl who hangs with a group of street thugs. She befriends Musa and shows him how to commit petty thefts, but Musa would rather work for his money.
Meanwhile, the specter of slow death looms over everything. Musa keeps hearing about something called AIDS. Is this related to the "curse" the village elders said had affected his family? Nobe's sister is dying of AIDS, and his wife is asking some tough questions about his lifestyle. Pieter (Clive Scott, Duma), the owner of the trucking company, has largely ignored the signs of sickness that his employees exhibit. But the disease finally hits home when his son is hospitalized. The threat is real, but everyone is reluctant to talk about it. Tradition, superstition, and shame breed ignorance about the disease. Musa's determination to provide for his family and his quest for answers may be the catalyst that inspires change in the adults.
Beat the Drum is a movie that clearly and openly has something to say. It wants to speak to a community—specifically, to South Africans—to encourage talking about AIDS. The movie definitely has a message to deliver, but it is also thoroughly entertaining. At its center is Junior Singo as the resourceful Musa. The young actor is a natural in front of the camera, and his performance expresses both the innocence of a boy who has never before left his village and the maturity of someone shouldering responsibilities well beyond his own years. Owen Sejake is also very good as the truck driver who may not have the highest moral standards but does his best to be a decent and hardworking family man.
Ironically, the DVD's packaging seems reluctant to tell the whole story. The DVD cover features Singo dominating the top portion of the poster and a giraffe walking along a savannah at the lower third. The synopsis on the back mentions only "a mysterious illness" that has struck Musa's village. It seems like a disservice to hide the core of this story, and ironic since the refusal to discuss the disease openly is one of the problems in preventing its spread. While the movie does not contain any profanity, graphic violence, or sex, it does look unflinchingly at the problem of AIDS in South Africa. And the characters suffering from AIDS, who clearly exhibit symptoms, are not the only victims. In an early scene, we learn that Musa's 7-year-old cousin, Thandi (Dineo Nchabeleng), is being sexually abused by a schoolteacher. Viewers may also be surprised by Nobe's casual attitude about hiring prostitutes.
Beat the Drum is a beautifully photographed movie. There are enough sweeping shots of sun-drenched African vistas in the first part of the movie to inspire the urge to visit these magnificent landscapes. After the action moves to the city, the realism of the street-level photography feels like we're seeing Johannesburg through the eyes of its poorest inhabitants. From the tight confines of the village huts to the traffic-choked streets of the city, every scene is expertly assembled. One memorable shot is when Musa has been kicked off Nobe's truck. Looking out from the back of the truck, most of the widescreen frame is in darkness, save for the opening in the tarp through which we see Musa standing on the road. As the truck pulls away, Musa's drum rolls out of the darkness and into the light. Suddenly remembering his cargo, the boy gives chase. It is just one example of the precise and elegant widescreen framing displayed throughout the movie. The picture on this DVD is fairly good. Details are reasonably sharp, and the few instances of dirt and dust on the image are not prominent enough to distract. In a few scenes where the characters speak in a Zulu dialect, the subtitles appear in very small type. These subtitles are permanent on the source print and are not an optional element on the DVD.
The stereo audio does adequate service to the movie. In the city scenes, especially, there is a good balance between dialogue and background sound effects. The music has enough sweep to take us from the African countryside to the city and back again. There were two instances when, in the middle of a scene, the audio level seemed to drop slightly. Overall the soundtrack works just fine.
The featurette "Beat the Drum: A South African Story" is a standard promotional short. The 16-minute behind-the-scenes look at the movie features the cast introducing their characters, writer-producer W. David McBrayer talking about the development of the story, and director David Hickson sharing details of the production.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a movie that clearly has an educational agenda, Beat the Drum never feels pedantic. These are engaging characters in a sad situation based in reality. If I had to point out a flaw in the story it would be that everything wraps up too neatly. The movie is meant to inspire a change of attitude at the individual level—small steps lead to big changes—but perhaps the community comes together a little too easily in the last act. So there, I've said it: the movie's shortcoming is that it is too optimistic. (Now I feel like a jerk.) But the movie's message is hope, not bleakness.
It is a movie about AIDS, and it is more than that. This is a heartfelt story about how communities can end the stigma of shame and ignorance around AIDS and save their people. It is also the story of a boy's adventure in the city and his first steps toward becoming a man. Beautifully photographed and finely acted by a cast of veterans and newcomers, Beat the Drum is solid entertainment with an important message.
Not guilty. The filmmakers are commended for their work and are free to
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• Beat the Drum: A South African Story
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