WHEN the film ``Cry Freedom'' opens across the United States this weekend, the latest battle in a decade-long war between a man and a government will be joined. The man is Donald Woods, a former South African newspaper editor, who is embarked on a near-obsessive quest to expose the brutality and racism of some of his former countrymen.
``In a way, it's sort of the ultimate media reply to the South African government,'' Mr. Woods said in an interview here before the nationwide premiere of ``Cry Freedom.'' The film is based on two of Woods's books, ``Asking for Trouble'' and ``Cry Freedom.''
Pre-release advertisements bill it as ``already the most talked about film of the year.'' Although that may be advertising hyperbole, Donald Woods would be pleased if it were true.
Because, for Woods, the $21 million production is neither entertainment nor docu-drama: It is simply another vehicle to launch an attack on South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation.
Even Sir Richard Attenborough, the film's producer/director, calls the movie ``propaganda.'' And for that very reason, it is bound to be controversial. (For a review of the film by Monitor critic David Sterritt, see Page 25.)
The film traces Woods's transformation from a starched-shirt liberal South African newspaper editor to a radicalized opponent of the South African government. The change was, as Woods acknowledges, largely a result of his friendship with Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness movement that flowered in the 1970s among South Africa's angry, restive black populace. (South Africa said it would release Govan Mbeki, a leading black nationalist who has been in jail for 23 years. See story, Page 2.)
Mr. Biko was killed while in the custody of South African security police. An official inquiry found that no one was responsible for the death. Woods was ``banned'' - a peculiarly South African punishment that, in effect, declared him a nonperson, forbade him from writing or being quoted, and ended his journalistic career.
When his youngest daughter received a T-shirt in the mail, ostensibly a gift but impregnated with acid, Woods determined that he could no longer live in South Africa. The latter half of the film depicts his flight into exile. The final scene, a flashback, reenacts the cataclysmic Soweto ``disturbances'' of 1976, in which more than 700 people were killed. The film ends with a roll call of those killed in South African security police custody, with the chilling official notations of the cause of death: hangings, falls from windows, ``slips'' in showers. Two-thirds of the way through the list is ``Bantu Stephen Biko.''
``What struck me when I saw the final cut of it was, `There it is, for anyone to look at. There it is for anyone to challenge,''' Woods says. ``And what I like about it is that it puts on record in a most public way a number of developments and deeds by agents of the South African government which they clearly thought would never come to light.''
Over the past decade, Woods has written six books and countless opinion columns and has delivered hundreds of lectures. He has been charged with self-promotion, lambasted for his caustic characterizations of the ruling Afrikaner ethnic group, and denounced for his frequent comparisons of South Africa to Nazi Germany.
But even his critics concede that Woods has become one of the most effective opponents-in-exile of the South African government.
Woods admits that he is surprised at how enduring his audience's interest in South Africa and apartheid has become. ``Cry Freedom'' is, in some respects, the capstone of his anti-apartheid effort.
Woods says the film does not reflect a dated vision, dulled by a decade in exile.
``What the film shows,'' he says, ``is the essence of apartheid, and that isn't dated. The essence of apartheid is the repression of a majority of blacks by a minority of whites, and that certainly hasn't changed.''
Indeed, says Woods, the situation in South Africa is ``worse now than it was 10 years ago, certainly. The anger on both sides, and the polarization, has intensified.''
``You've had, since 1978, a perceptible move to the right among whites. ... You've got the extreme right-wing parties gaining support at the expense of the governing party. You've got people who were formerly white liberals now supporting [South African President P.W.] Botha because, I think, of many years of brainwashing and propaganda inside the country.''
``Then you've got the blacks, the young blacks. As Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu says, it's frightening to see children of 10 and 12 years of age, ready to die, cold-eyed. That polarization is worse than it was 10 years ago.''
One of the main reasons for that polarization, he says, is that South Africa is ``a brainwashed society. ... All television is controlled by the state, all radio, and a great deal of the newspaper press.''
In some respects, Woods says, white South Africans of today are like the Germans before World War II, paralyzed and held captive by the fear that's been planted among them.
``These are not monsters in the normally accepted sense of the term. These are not people without charm or without good qualities,'' he says. ``But they've got the mind-set that leads them into doing the most atrocious things with a kind of shell over their consciences.''
``I'm sure,'' he says, ``that similar processes occurred in Nazi Germany.''
It is one of the ironies of the film, and the country which it is about, that ``Cry Freedom'' will probably never be seen in South Africa so long as a white minority government is in power. But Woods professes not to be bothered by that.
``Steve Biko used to say to me, `Your job is to convert your fellow whites. Our job is to work on the blacks.' This film is aimed predominantly at the white Northern Hemisphere, to dispel the massive ignorance of what apartheid's all about and hopefully to raise their awareness so that they will require their governments ... to take strong steps such as economic sanctions, divestments, diplomatic measures, to do all possible to bring the South African government to the negotiating table with blacks - with the real black leaders.''
Woods says he hopes to return to South Africa someday, and would do so as soon as he saw signs that genuine moves toward majority rule were under way. But he does not hold out much hope that will be soon: ``I think in the long term the country has a tremendous future, because of the caliber of the people, both black and white.''
``What I fear for is the short-term future. I look at Africa, and I see in so many cases where there have been white minorities and black majorities, that the fears of the whites were unjustified, in Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe. And I'm hoping that the same thing will happen in South Africa.
``But,'' he concludes, ``it's such a tragedy that in each of these cases there's had to be violence first.''