Come Back, Africa


Come Back, Africa
Come Back, Africa
Directed by Lionel Rogosin
Produced by Lionel Rogosin
Written by Lionel Rogosin, Lewis Nkosi, William Modisane
Cinematography Ernst Artaria, Emil Knebel
Editing by Carl Lerner
Release date(s) 1960
Running time 83 minutes
Country South Africa, United States
Language English

Come Back, Africa is the second feature-length film written, produced, and directed by American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. The film had a profound effect on African Cinema, and remains of great historical and cultural importance as a document preserving the unique heritage of the townships in South Africa in the 1950s.

Contents

Filming

After the Second World War, Rogosin made a vow to fight racism and fascism wherever he found it and decided to make a film that would expose the apartheid system to the world. He made his first film On the Bowery (1956) as a way to prepare for making Come Back, Africa.

Rogosin and his wife Elinor arrived in South Africa in May 1957 and spent six months preparing and getting to know the people and country. Rogosin trod carefully to prepare his film knowing that any mistakes and contacts with the anti apartheid community would put his project at risk. He secretly met Myrtle and Marty Berman (organizers in the anti-apartheid movement) who introduced him to the groups fighting against apartheid and to Bloke Modisane , an important writer and journalist working for the legendary DRUM magazine. Modisane then introduced Rogosin to Lewis Nkosi, another young DRUM journalist and other leading journalists, musicians and writers: thus it records the end of an era called the "Sophiatown Renaissance".

Together Rogosin, Modisane and Nkosis worked out a simple script with which Rogosin improvised and worked with non-professional actors. The filming was done under extreme circumstances and the constant danger of being discovered by the apartheid regime. Rogosin carefully made up different stories for different people so that he was able to film and get the materials out of the country safely. The South African authorities were fooled: the tiny film crew shot in location in the streets of Johannesburg, Sophiatown and in restricted areas prohibited to whites, where 50,000 African homes were being annihilated to make room for a white suburb ironically called “Triumph". The filming was finished in October 1959 and Rogosin left South Africa never to return. The editing was done in New York by Carl Lerner who was receiving the rushes from South Africa.

Plot

This story of a Zulu family is a composite story of events enacted by Africans whose experiences resembled the story’s events.

Forced out of his village by famine, Zachariah leaves his family to take the only work available: in the gold mines near Johannesburg. Seeking better than a slave wage, he settles with his wife and children in a bleak room in a crumbling shack on the outskirts of the city. Here he confronts the pass laws - hundreds of laws which he did not know existed- restricting his every move: he cannot find work without a pass, and he cannot get a pass without work. At the same time he is constantly threatened with banishment or imprisonment if he is unemployed too long, or fails to comply with petty restrictions.

Zachariah drifts through a succession of jobs- domestic servant, garage attendant, waiter, road gang laborer- tormented, insulted, and degraded by white employers who summarily dismiss him because of his ignorance or out of malice. In addition, he falls foul of Marumu, the leader of a gang of “tsotsis” (young black hoodlums) who are terrorizing the streets of Sophiatown. Fearful that poverty will drive her son to the street gangs, his wife takes a job as a domestic servant where she must live on premises, separated from her family.

Zachariah is caught sleeping with Vinah during a nightly police raid and is arrested for trespassing. He returns from prison to find his wife dead, murdered by Murumu because she refused to give in to his sexual demands.

Inexorably Zachariah’s overwhelming helplessness and frustration reveal the social impoverishment of all African men, women, and children. Starved off the land after confiscation by successive governments, the black man is uprooted from his native soil and forced continually to search for a home and livelihood. Deprived of political power, he must weave a treacherous path of survival among the myriad written and unwritten laws that govern black contact with the white world. - laws which are often contradictory and inevitably result in severe penalties. The family is increasingly torn apart when both parents must work to buy bread, leaving their children to grow up amid the violence and filth of the streets. In the end, the African is completely defenseless in his struggle to survive, inhumanely pulled between the capricious brutality of white law and the wanton violence of the black outlaw.

Context

Come Back, Africa is one of the earliest films to be made clandestinely under a hostile regime and constituted a political and moral act. It explores the brutalizing effect of the life Africans were forced to lead in their own country, subject to an official policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination.

Rogosin’s crew worked in secret, disguised as a commercial film unit making a musical, and in constant fear of confiscation and deportation. It was one of the first if not the first film to document the lives of black people in Africa using native languages in a non-musical film.

The South African government attacked Come Back Africa and banned it from being shown in South Africa.

Besides the Critic’s award at the Venice film festival the film won many awards and was a critical success in Europe. It had its biggest impact in France where Madame Yvonne Decaris who ran the legendary Pagode Cinema, in Paris, opened the film. It was reviewed by many great French intellectuals such as Roland Barthes. It then went on to be taken up and screened through the French Cinéclubs system and it is estimated that over a million people saw the film in France.

Rogosin opened his legendary Bleecker Street Cinema in New York in the Spring of 1960 and premiered Come Back, Africa one week before the Sharpeville Massacre.

Languages

Fanakalo is used for the mine scenes (it is the mining lingua franca), Afrikaans is used by the policeman who arrests Zacharia for a pass offence, Zulu is Zacharia's home language and English is used by the intellectuals in the shebeen scene.

Music

Rogosin wanted to expose the ordeal of the people but also wanted to capture the culture of the streets .He was passionate about the music and dancing he observed in the townships, so he also had a "story" for the authorities that he was making a street musical -travelogue which he used to obtain permission to film outdoors. There are scenes with gumboot dancers, penny-whistle musicians, a group singing Elvis's hit Teddy Bear and a young Miriam Makeba singing in the “shebeen scene”.

Awards

The film was premiered at the 1960 Venice film festival. Rogosin financed and backed Bloke Modisane’s escape from South Africa and his transition period in London where he wrote his book “Blame me on History”. Rogosin at the same time bribed officials in South Africa and managed to get Miriam Makeba out of the country against the payment of a bond so that she could present the film with him at the Venice film Festival. The film and Makeba's singing and “afro" hair-style created a sensation and the film won the prestigious “Italian Critics Award”. It was almost impossible to get black artists out of South Africa at the time and impossible for these artists to make a career outside of the country. Rogosin engaged Makeba under contract and financed her travels and living expenses in England and the United States. Rogosin also hired a publicity agent and arranged her appearance at the Village vanguard in NY and her debut on The Steve Allen Show.

  • Italian Critics Award, Venice Film Festival, 1959
  • Winner of the award for “the film showing the most significant advance in content means of expression and technique.”-The Canadian Federation of Film Societies, Vancouver Film Festival, 1959
  • Selected by Time Magazine as one of the “Ten Best Pictures of 1960”
  • Selected by Chevalier de la Barre, Paris, as “Most Worthy Picture of 1960”

Reception

“..a timely and remarkable piece of cinema journalism: a matter-of-fact, horrifying study of life in the black depths of South African society. Filmed in secret..in constant danger of arrest and deportation, Come Back Africa..looks deep into the private nightmare and social desperation of a man and his people.” -Time Magazine

“Burning with integrity; it is the most damning indictment of apartheid and the pass system that I have ever seen..In a climax of almost unbearable anger and frustration it beats out a question which, though unspoken, must be in the mind of everyone who sees it: How long are we going to allow these appalling conditions to exist?”-Nina Hibbin -Daily Worker (London)

“If you want to see and understand South Africa, there is no better way than this picture of Johannesburg: the bitterness of the whites, the growing anger of the Negroes and the horror of the shacks and tin shelters of Sophiatown..Extraordinary timeliness.” -Archer Winsten, New York Post

“Highest Recommendation! Extraordinary film, powerfully dramatic, brilliantly photographed, splendidly played against the background of explosive South Africa.”- Jesse Zunser, Cue Magazine

“The very spontaneity of the scenes gives his story illumination, shock, and intense poignancy.”-Hollis Alpert, Saturday Review

“...I have just seen a film that makes me ashamed of being white-ashamed of belonging to a race which can oppress and terrorize people of other colors. It shows how colored men are so hedged about by restrictions and brutal laws that their lives are little better than the lives of animals in a cage. "- Anthony Carthew, Daily Herald

“..a film which is not so much a work of art but is of vast importance as a contribution to awareness of the gigantic problem of racial conflict existing in South Africa today..It is a fine film, entertaining in many ways, and quite authentic in its presentation..the musical background..is superb...and interspersed among the story scenes are excellent shots of Johannesburg streets, filled with constantly moving tides of Africans, restless, surging forward, overwhelming in their numbers.”-Christian Science Monitor

"Come Back Africa" has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the laboratory L’Imagine Ritrovata with the collaboration of Rogosin Heritage in 2005.

Book

Lionel Rogosin’s diaries of this period are collected in the book A Man Possessed, edited by Peter Davis.

"Making of" Documentary

In 2007 Rogosin's sons Michael and Daniel co-produced a 55-minute "Making of" documentary entitled An American in Sophiatown. The film was directed by Lloyd Ross.

"There are many film documentaries that record the emergence of a work, the formation of an artist, the development of an author or the evolution of a filmmaker, but for surprise and gripping political interest few can equal or resemble “An American in Sophiatown."

"This is an astonishingly alive portrait of a filmmaker staunchly grappling as much with an enthralling medium as with the forbidding obstacles that stood in his way; for Rogosin was confronting unknown terrors in an unknown political environment. What he came out with was a collection of unusual images, which became more than a film.
Interspersed with clips from the original film ”Come Back Africa“, with the aid of a supporting cast of those who participated in the making of the film, the late Lionel Rogosin tells the story of how he penetrated the sealed township of Sophiatown, Johannesburg during the iron rule of the apartheid regime. In what sometimes develops like a political thriller, he tells how he fooled the regime into believing he was shooting a harmless travelogue only to emerge with one of the most damning portrayals of lives lived under pressure of a police state.
An American in Sophiatown is more than a record of how a film was made; it is itself as thrilling a record as the explosive story “Come Back Africa“. It is also the gripping story of how one man, an American outsider who sought to make a difference, came to a black South African township armed only with cameras and a vision; how from the moral collapse of a system he emerged with the most powerful indictment of the apartheid regime that had ever been done.

External links

The Official Lionel Rogosin Website -[1]

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