ONE service that movies can perform quite efficiently is to bring other forms of art and entertainment closer to us. Although the Broadway theater is in one small corner of New York City, through film a Broadway show can travel anywhere. That's especially handy when the show traveled a long way to get to Broadway in the first place - like ``Sarafina!,'' which came to the United States from South Africa. ``Voices of Sarafina!'' isn't a movie version of that show, however. Rather, it's a close-up look at the people and ideas that went into it - and a revealing glimpse of South African culture from an unusual perspective.
The live show ``Sarafina!'' had its origins in a politically stirring event of 1976, when 15,000 schoolchildren demonstrated in Soweto, South Africa, against a new and aggressive move by the South African government: the declaration of Afrikaans as the country's official language.
Eleven years later, a number of socially alert high school students banded together at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg to create a music-theater event that would dramatize the '76 uprising. About a year and a half ago, New York's enterprising Lincoln Center produced an American edition of the show featuring a troupe of young South African performers. It earned a Tony Award nomination and is still running on Broadway.
The movie ``Voices of Sarafina!'' includes moments from the show, as well as vivid glances at life in poverty-ridden South African townships. More prominently, it features interviews with members of the play's cast - who go beyond their songs and dialogues to give us firsthand impressions of existence under apartheid.
Their political views are the focal point of the movie, but there's also a hearty dose of personal drama. And there's an even heartier dose of music - including mbaqanga, described as ``the music of liberation'' by the film's distributors - that captures the heartbeat of South African life.
The musical aspect of the film reaches its climax near the end, when Miriam Makeba joins the ensemble, singing and speaking of her own feelings about her country and its racial turmoil.
Watching this part of the movie, I was reminded of an earlier film about South Africa called ``Come Back Africa,'' a brilliant portrait of life under apartheid made several years ago by Lionel Rogosin, and featuring Ms. Makeba at her most eloquent.
``Voices of Sarafina!'' was directed by Nigel Noble, a New York-based documentary specialist who has won both Emmy and Academy Awards, and who obviously cares deeply about South Africa, its problems, and its future. His film isn't a brilliant work of cinema, but it has a strong emotional charge that grows from its subject and its talented cast.
The makers of ``Voices of Sarafina!,'' including Lincoln Center-affiliated producer Bernard Gerston, expect the movie to have its broadest exposure in a shortened television version, but it's being released first by New Yorker Films as a regular theatrical picture.
It's well worth a visit for those who want to broaden their own exposure to South African history, politics, and art.