On the township

Pub date February 3, 2012
SectionFilm Features

FILM Opposition to apartheid didn’t really pick up steam as a popular cause in the U.S. until the early 1980s. Which makes it all the more remarkable that New York City-based documentarian Lionel Rogosin made Come Back, Africa about a quarter-century earlier — though less surprisingly, the film itself was barely seen here at the time. Now finally playing American theaters outside his home town in a restored print, it’s a time capsule whose background is as intriguing as the history it captures onscreen.

The horrors of World War II and some subsequent global travel had stirred a profound awareness of social injustices in Rogosin, who began planning a feature about South Africa while still working at his father’s textile business. He had very little filmmaking experience, however, so he took $30,000 of his earnings and as “practice” made On the Bowery (1956), a semi staged portrait of Manhattan’s skid row area that won considerable praise, if also some shocked and appalled responses from Eisenhower-era keepers of America’s wholesome, prosperous self-image. (It was, as 1959’s Come Back, Africa would also be, much more widely appreciated in Europe.)

Armed with the confidence bestowed by that successful effort and several international awards, Bogosin traveled to South Africa — not for the first time, but now with the earnest intent of making his expose. In the mid- to late ’50s, however, that was hardly a simple task. He and wife Elinor Hart had to do everything clandestinely, from making contacts in the activist underground to recruiting actors and crew. (The latter eventually had to be brought in mostly from Europe and Israel.) To get permits he fed the government authorities a series of lines: first he pretended to be making an airline travelogue to encourage tourism; then a music documentary to show local blacks “were basically a happy people;” then another doc, about the Boer War. Amazingly, despite the myriad likelihoods of being informed on, he shot the entire film without being shut down or deported. It remained, however, a stressful and dangerous endeavor for all concerned.

Like On the Bowery, Come Back, Africa qualified as a documentary by the looser standards of the time (Rogosin preferred the term “poetic realism”), but mixed a loose, acted narrative with completely nonfiction elements. Like the prior film, it also followed the luckless wanderings of an agreeable protagonist played by a first-time actor actually found on the street — here Zacharia Mgabi, a 30-ish bearded worker “discovered” on a bus queue.

His character, Zachariah, is caught in one catch-22 of apartheid life: he can’t get a job without the appropriate permits, and can’t get the permits without a job. First he tries finding employment in the misery of a mining encampment, then travels to Johannesburg — where it’s illegal for him to be without further permits — where he’s bounced from one position to another. Working as “house boy” to a middle-class white couple, he’s fired when the racist, shrewish wife (a memorable performance by Myrtle Berman) catches him sneaking a drink from her own secret booze stash. An auto-shop stint is lost due to a friend’s incessant goofing off, while service as porter in a hotel is terminated when a hysterical white lady guest cries “Rape!” simply because he surprises her in a hallway.

Meanwhile Zachariah’s wife arrives from their native KwaZulu, and they tentatively set up house in a Sophiatown shack. (Come Back, Africa is of particular interest for its scenes there — within a few years the government had forcibly emptied this poor black township, having made its population mix of races illegal, and the area was razed to become an unrecognizable whites only suburb.) But even this small foothold on stability is doomed. Just as alcoholism dragged On the Bowery‘s hero back into a downward spiral at the end (both on- and offscreen), so Zachariah and his family are helpless to save themselves from the violence, police harassment, and self-destruction apartheid breeds and maintains itself with.

All show and almost no “tell,” Come Back, Africa pauses around the two-thirds point to let several men pass around a bottle, discussing the nature of and solutions to their oppression. They’re happily interrupted by the incongruity of a young woman in an elegant cocktail dress — no less than a then-unknown Miriam Makeba, who sings a couple of songs in her inimitable voice. When the film was finished, Rogosin bribed officials to get her out of the country, bankrolling his contracted “discovery’s” launch at the Venice Festival, and in the U.S. and England. But to his great disappointment, she was quickly taken under Harry Belafonte’s wing, dismissing her first benefactor as “not very nice” and “an amateur.” Thus a legend was born, with Rogosin pretty much cut out of the resume.

Come Back, Africa, too, would disappoint its maker in some respects. With a furious South African government swiftly condemning this portrait as “distorted,” his original plans for a trilogy became impossible. The film won a number of prizes — although unlike On the Bowery, it was pointedly not nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar — and would eventually be widely seen on European television. But it has still never been broadcast in the U.S., and despite Rogosin’s efforts — he went so far as to open NYC’s still-extant Bleeker Street Cinemas in 1960 to show it and other important new works — it collided with a thud against the overwhelming indifference of middle-class white audiences. They were barely starting to confront such thorny racial issues in their own backyard, much less in far-flung nations. Not shown in South Africa until the late 1980s, Come Back nonetheless proved a great influence on development of the whole continent’s indigenous cinematic voices.

A liberal shit-kicker to the end, Rogosin made other documentaries, was integral to the New American Cinema movement (alongside Jonas Mekas, Robert Downey Sr., Shirley Clark, and other experimental luminaries), founded distribution company Impact Films, and moved to England for a spell before dying in Los Angeles at the century’s turn. It’s a pity he didn’t live to see his two first features restored and rediscovered — though interviews late in life suggest he never let limited exposure dampen his activist zeal one whit.

COME BACK, AFRICA opens Fri/3 at the Roxie.