SHOWBIZ: Ode to Harry Belafonte


Documentary maker Susanne Rostock talks to Subhadra Devan about Harry Belafonte, his art and his dream

.MANY people know Harry Belafonte for his rendition of the Caribbean folk song, The Banana Boat Song (Day-O), the ode to the working man.

Sing Your Song, by documentary director Susanne Rostock, is an ode to the renowned singer whose life has been driven by song and activism.

The 2011 co-production by five people including Gina Belafonte, the youngest of Harry’s four children, dazzles with information about the singer, his life as a performer and his efforts with civil rights in the US and elsewhere.

The 86-year-old Belafonte, born on March 1 in New York to Jamaican immigrants, knew poverty first-hand. During the Second World War, he joined the US Navy at age 17 and came across the works of W.E B. Du Bois, who helped found the National Association For The Advancement Of Coloured People.

After catching a play at the American Negro Theater in Harlem, which gave black actors roles and opportunities denied them elsewhere, Belafonte got hooked to theatre and activism. He was working as a janitor then.

Sing Your Song is guided by Belafonte’s narration, and offers interviews with members of his family and famous people such as Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Tony Bennett, and Miriam Makeba, among others.

The cadence of the documentary is marked by home movies, film and TV scenes as well as news snippets.

A review by Britain’s The Guardian states that the title comes from advice given by Belafonte’s hero African-American singer-composer and activist Paul Robeson where he tells him to “get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are”.

Recalls Rostock: “Actually, as intrigued and honoured as I was when Harry first came to me with this documentary, I did say ‘no’ because I was deeply committed to another film project.

“But Harry is not one to take ‘no’ for an answer. Over the weeks that followed our initial meeting, Harry and I had many late afternoon discussions about the film and life and art and the power of art to change the world — something we both believe in wholeheartedly.

“At one point, Harry’s eyes filled with tears and as he leaned over and held my hand he revealed his great fear of not ‘passing the baton’. It was in that moment that I knew I had to make this film.”

Rostock has been an editor on American political and society documentaries. She says: “My work for the last 38 years has been primarily in the realm of documentaries. I have always believed in the power of people telling their own stories.”

She says she has been “mesmerised by film and its power to transport the viewer to worlds and experiences never imagined for as long as I can remember”.

“In 90 minutes one can have one’s entire world view turned upside down,” explains Rostock who studied Anthropology and Ethnographic filmmaking at Columbia University with the legendary Margaret Mead, before getting a master’s degree in 1972.

“I have been very fortunate to be making films ever since.”

For Sing Your Song, she sifted through tonnes of archival footage.

“The archival footage in the film came in every format imaginable. The material in 2“tape had to be ‘baked’ before I could transfer it to a more stable digital format.

“Much of the material that existed on film had to be restored digitally. Some of this footage before restoration looked like a cat had used it as a scratching post. All material went through an extensive colour-correcting process.”

She says she is collaborating with Belafonte’s daughter Gina on a film called Another Night In the Free World, which will hopefully begin to answer the question posed by Harry Belafonte at the end of Sing Your Song — ‘What do you do now?’.

Rostock has said she wanted Sing Your Song “to be a roadmap for younger viewers with a desire to change the world”. The response has been encouraging.

“Each time I show the film, no matter where in the world, young people have flooded me with questions and all seem to want to engage in activities that would help heal our planet,” she says.

“Many have contacted me weeks after seeing the film saying that their heads and hearts are filled with the desire to stand up and make a difference.”

When asked for advice to those keen to make a documentary like Sing Your Song, she replies: “Aside from making sure that you have an archival researcher who is a detective in the order of Sherlock Holmes and a budget sufficient to pay for the archival rights?

“My best advice is not to be afraid to let people tell their own stories from their heart. Also to be sure to weave their tales with strong, poetic imagery and music.”

While many see Belafonte as a singer from yore with Coconut Woman, to Rostock he is “one of the most eloquent, courageous, pure of heart people I have ever had the privilege to meet”.

“In his entire life he has approached each day with heartfelt concern for humanity. He has dedicated his life to fighting oppression around the world and continues to do so to this day. Do I like him? He is my hero!”

Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song CD Contest

FIVE Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song CDs are up for grab. To win, answer correctly the question below and complete a slogan.

Question: When is Harry Belafonte’s birthday?

Complete this sentence in 15 words or less:
Sing Your Song to me means_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________    
Email your entry to

Subject Field
“Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song CD Contest”

Please include your
• Full name
• IC No
• Contact Number

Closing Date March 7, 2013

Terms & conditions

1.     Open to all Malaysians except employees of New Straits Times and Sony Music Malaysia.
2.     Only your first email entry will be entertained.
3.     Judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entertained.
4.     Late entries will not be entertained.
5.     Prizes are not transferable or redeemable for cash.
6.     Winners will be picked on correct answer and winning slogan.

Rostock with her hero, Belafonte.

Leave Your Comment

Leave Your Comment:

New Straits Times reserves the right not to publish offensive or abusive comments and those of hate speech, harassment, commercial promos and invasion of privacy. Your IP will be logged and may be used to prevent further submission.The views expressed here are that of the members of the public and unless specifically stated are not those of NST.