Friday, 27 June 2014

COME BACK, AFRICA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Astonishing Milestone Film&Video BluRay

Can you imagine making a film about Apartheid - in secret, in South Africa - while Nelson Mandela is, at the very same time, on trial for treason? Such a film was made and if one is able to declare that shooting a film can be an act of bravery, then legendary filmmaker Lionel Rogosin might be cinema's greatest hero of all. In fact, the risks taken by all those involved in creating the film Come Back, Africa were so fraught with danger that even now, it's impossible to look at it without gasping with awe and horror in equal measure. Created over a period of two years, Rogosin's film remains the most important film ever made to depict the horrendous regime of Apartheid. Available on the visionary Milestone Film and Video label - such a must-own item that if you were to buy only one movie this year, this would have to be it.

Miriam Makeba: one of South Africa's greatest female vocalists had never been heard outside her country until Lionel Rogosin managed to get her out to attend the film's World Premiere at the Venice International Film Festival.
Come Back, Africa (1959) *****
Dir. Lionel Rogosin
Starring: Zacharia Mgabi, Vinah Bendile, Miriam Makeba, Myrtle Berman

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"...the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." - John Cassavetes

"...a film of terrible beauty, of the ongoing life it captured and of the spirit embodied by Rogosin and his fellow artists.” - Martin Scorsese on Lionel Rogosin's Come Back, Africa
Rogosin's footage was shot in secret.
A Child Labourer in the Diamond Mines
of South Africa under the Apartheid Regime.
Nobody made movies like Lionel Rogosin. His first feature film On the Bowery broke every rule in the book and in so doing, created a whole new set of rules that inspired and defined filmmaking for over half a century including the likes of John Cassavetes, John Schlesinger, Karel Reizs, Richard Lester and Martin Scorsese (not to mention a myriad of documentary directors).

Rogosin's brilliant approach - an amalgam of Flaherty, Italian Neo-Realism and his own unique method - resulted in what could be called docudrama, though even that word seems too inconsequential to describe how he made movies.

After seeing Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (AKA The Bicycle Thief), Rogosin gave up his career as an engineer. He had to make movies - movies that captured the reality of the times and most of all, to give voice to the disenfranchised through the art of cinema.

On The Bowery (a link to my review is at the end of this piece) examined the harrowing Post-War existence of skid-row alcoholics on the Bowery of Manhattan. Come Back, Africa would employ his style even further to examine the lives of Black Africans in South Africa under the horrendous regime of Apartheid. Travelling to South Africa with his pregnant wife, Rogosin spent six months getting to know people - both Black and White - who could generously provide an opportunity for him to observe what life was like under Apartheid. (Rogosin took a similar approach with On the Bowery, spending months on skid-row.)

Lionel Rogosin on-set: making reality.
Based on people he met, locations he viewed, numerous shocking (as well as inspiring and positive) incidents he witnessed and generally just soaking up everything he could, Rogosin put together a treatment of what shape his film would take and eventually collaborated with two Black journalists/activists Lewis Nkosi and William Modisane on a screenplay.

Casting the film with non-actors who were as close in reality to the kinds of people written as "characters" (real domestics, diamond mine workers, unskilled general labourers, etc.) and continually bamboozling the White South African officials into thinking he was producing a travelogue, Rogosin began to shoot the film proper. Casting the White African characters was a bit trickier, but as he'd connected with numerous people who secretly despised Apartheid, he was able to get those actors as well.

What we experience is simply and utterly astonishing. There is no other film quite as extraordinarily detailed in the depiction of life under Apartheid - in the very country, amongst the actual locations, with real people and during the horrendous early years of a regime in which segregation and racism were actually legislated (and where men like Mandela were paying dearly for their human rights stances). In addition to shooting all over Johannesburg, Rogosin was afforded the amazing opportunity to shoot in the Black townships. In fact, much of these scenes are set in Sophiatown which was actually being levelled during the shooting to eventually build a swanky White-Only suburb.

The tale told is a simple one, but it reflects the actual events and experiences all Blacks lived through in South Africa. This "simple" story is our conduit into the very lives of the people during this time. We see a man forced to leave his wife and kids behind in their country village and work in a diamond mine. With wages withheld (and not very good to begin with), he's forced to ask his wife to sell some of their livestock so he can actually have money to live on. We experience what life is like as a domestic servant with a racist White housewife - screaming at the man constantly, using the most ugly racial epithets one can imagine. We're party to Black workers being fired by racists, endless demands by police for paperwork and passes, the "White-Only" and "Black-Only" segregation, squalid living conditions, brutal back-breaking work, child labour, raids and arrests upon those without the proper paperwork and even the rape and murder of a woman whose husband is stupidly detained by officials and not home to protect his wife.

There are, of course, wonderful things - the vibrancy and music of the people in the townships away from their oppressors and amongst each other, the late night gatherings of intelligent political discussion mixed with spirits, music and even dancing and yes, we even meet one White person who is a genuine, caring human being (though sadly and apologetically forced to do something he'd rather not do - yes, White people could be detained, beaten, jailed and/or charged with treason).

And here was Lionel Rogosin, his pregnant wife and a handful of European crew members living in this madhouse called South Africa and actually making a film that would secretly expose life under Apartheid for the rest of the world to see - working collaboratively with a local cast and crew who were risking EVERYTHING to make this film a reality. The shooting days began at 5AM and often didn't end until 11PM - everyday for well over a month, constantly shifting locales and working in secret. Every couple of days, Rogosin would make mad dashes to the airport to put his footage on airplanes to New York and one night, on a particularly treacherous road, was rammed head-on by another car. Miraculously, his wife didn't miscarry and their first child was born in South Africa.

I've watched this film several times since I received the Blu-Ray. During every single viewing I'm stunned. My jaw drops, my heart soars and my tears flow. All I will do now is reiterate:

Nobody, but nobody made films like Lionel Rogosin.

The art of cinema and indeed, the world, owes him a huge debt of gratitude. Come Back, Africa is a bonafide masterpiece - it's one of the greatest films of all-time.

Come Back, Africa is part of the Milestone Film and Video "Milestone Cinematheque" series and Volume II of the ongoing collection entitled "The Films of Lionel Rogosin" (Volume I is the aforementioned On The Bowery). This is an extraordinary two-disc Blu-Ray set, chock-full of valuable extra feature. Disc 1 includes the full feature film Come Back, Africa, restored by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna and gorgeously transferred from the 2K restoration. The feature includes SDH subtitles and a wonderful Martin Scorsese Introduction. As if this wasn't enough, we get the outstanding Michael Rogosin/Lloyd Ross 64-minute documentary entitled An American in Sophiatown: The making of Come Back, Africa, an astonishing 20-minute radio interview with Lionel Rogosin discussing Come Back, Africa and the movie's theatrical trailer. Disc Two is just as extraordinary and I'll be reviewing it in separate article.

In the meantime, feel free to read my original review of Rogosin's On the Bowery by clicking HERE and if you do not own either of the Milestone Rogosin films, feel free to click on the Amazon links (options available for, and Amazon.UK) below and order straight from here. Ordering from this site allows for modest returns that assist with the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.

In USA and the rest of the WORLD - BUY Come Back, Africa - HERE!

In Canada - BUY Come Back, Africa HERE, eh!

In the UNITED KINGDOM - BUY Come Back, Africa - HERE!