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This Is National Wake at the Roxie Theater

Updated: Feb 09, 2023 13:25
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Northwestern writer Raymond Carver titled one of his books, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I would like to suggest Mirissa Neff’s documentary “This Is National Wake” might well be titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Punk.”

“This Is National Wake” will be shown at the Roxie on Thursday, February 9 at 6:30 PM, for the last night of SF Indie Fest.

This is National Wake Trailer:

This movie is like one of those classes whose teacher and subject were so unexpected and so exciting that you went from slouch to ramrod straight in a moment as what you were hearing dawned on you. 

National Wake was the only band I’ve ever written about repeatedly: Nothing Was Desirable and 1980s Jo’burg Punk From ‘National Wake’ 

in OkayAfrica, and Punk in Africa in ReadWriteWeb, among others. It’s also the only band whose songs have woven in and out of film form for me.

National Wake was a multiracial punk band that formed in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1978 Johannesburg by architecture student and guitarist Ivan Kadey, an orphan of Jewish origin; native African brothers Punka and Gary Khoza on drums and bass respectively; and white guitarist Steve Moni. Their short life together as a band gave birth to only one record, the eponymous National Wake, but its punk and African rhythm and insights, its funky sidesteps and halogen-bright light in the darkness of apartheid made that record last longer and mean more than any half a dozen other bands’ discographies.

I mention the races of the players on purpose. In the case of National Wake, punk was literally illegal, because multiracial activities were illegal. The country, its government, and its police force were blind in many ways, but in terms of color, they were eagle-eyed.

National Wake only lasted about four years. The pressure from the culture they lived in and the constant harassment by the cops, made mad band life, tenuous at the best of times, crushing. Kadey wound up moving to the States, where he has designed recording studios ever since, and Moni moved to Europe. The Khoza brothers, remaining in South Africa, both passed away.

Neff encountered National Wake the same many did, via the documentary “Punk in Africa.” She subsequently interviewed Kadey for a radio story on the band.

“I decided I wanted to follow the story to see where it would lead, with no intention of making a feature film,” said Neff. “I was working on a PBS show at the time called Sound Tracks that focused on the intersection of music and politics, and thought that I could mold the story of National Wake into a 15-minute television segment. But once I started to realize how complicated the band’s story was, as well as the historical background, I knew that the telling of their story would need to take a different form.”

That form was built in part on the Super 8 film that Nadine Kadey took at the time. “It’s been great to hear the music with the visuals in relation to the story of the band and see it all resonate through time,” said Ivan Kadey.

Nadine Kadey was inspired to buy three books about film and began to document both the life of the “Wake compound” in general, where the band “lived in defiance of core apartheid laws, and the performances of the band, which was always under threat,” said Kadey. “There was an urgency and a risk to record this moment, to capture this groundbreaking wild ride of joy, defiance and rebellion and inspiration. At this moment where justice is under attack the National Wake story is as relevant as ever.”

The story of National Wake has always been one in which art and injustice intersect and the former, just barely and only occasionally, overcomes the latter. “This Is National Wake” honors a band that beyond everything rocks. If they didn’t, this would be just another grim story about victims. Instead, it’s proof that resistance is not doomed to failure, especially if you lean it against the amp and put a beat behind it.

“This Is National Wake” will be shown at the Roxie on Thursday, February 9 at 6:30 PM, for the last night of SF Indie Fest.

Tickets and info here.

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