Documentary movies always seem to get short shrift. For too many people there the things people tell them to watch at school so they will learn something. Growing up on a diet of talking heads sitting around talking about subjects you're not really interested in would turn anybody off watching them. Which is highly unfortunate, as there are documentary movies out with just as much action and excitement as anything the studios could ever come up with. In fact, they are even more intense when you remember what you're watching actually happened.
The rather unfortunate shunning of this genre of film making has led to some of the more innovative directors and producers being ignored or forgotten. One of the most brave and innovative American documentary makers was probably someone most of you have never heard of, Lionel Rogosin. After returning from fighting in Europe in WW ll he was determined to continue the fight against oppression and intolerance in some way. Even though he had never directed or had anything to do with film before, he decided it would be the best way of communicating to the largest number of people at once. His first movie, On The Bowery, a documentary about the down and outs in New York's lower east side, won the Grand Prize for documentary films at the Venice Film Festival and The British Film Academy Award in the same category in 1956.
But injustice was what he wanted to depict, not just cinema verite, and he created two landmark movies which dealt with the circumstances of two groups of people dealing with systemic racism: Africans in South Africa in the late 1950s, Come Back Africa and African Americans in the early 1970s in Black Roots. These two movies have now been restored and packaged together in a special Blu-ray presentation by Milestone Films under the title Come Back Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume ll.
Come Back Africa was shot on location in South Africa and is a mix of documentary and docu-drama. Due to the fact he had to lie to the government about what he was filming in order to get permission to shoot, Rogosin and his crew had to shoot hundreds of feet of footage they would never use. The rest of the time they had to make sure they were not being observed and shot most of the film on the fly or in locations they knew were secure. They also had to use amateur actors due to the risk of informers. According to the documentary about the making of the movie included as one of the special features, Rogosin and his wife showed up in Johannesburg and were fortunate enough to meet several white members of the African National Congress and Africans who were willing to help them with the script and finding locations.
In order to attempt to tell the world the reality of the indignities of Apartheid they decided to focus on the plight of one man and his struggles to find work and what he and his family had to put up with in order to survive. We follow the one character through a variety of work and living situations, including making a trip down into the gold mines with the workers. While we are now overly familiar with the horrors of the Apartheid system of segregation and the manner in which it dehumanized Africans, in the 1950s this would have been a brutal revelation to the rest of the world. On the other hand it was also the first introduction people outside of South Africa had to the music of the townships. (One of the excuses Rogosin gave to the South African government for making the film was telling them they were documenting the music of the "natives" to show how happy they were in their lives).
The film was shot entirely on location in Sophiatown, the black ghetto which had been home to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela, plus many of the actors and script writers who were involved in the film's creation. At the time of the filming it was a centre of Black culture and activism. It was also on the verge of being destroyed by the South African government. Shortly after filming finished all the residents were forcibly evicted and the township razed and replaced with white only housing.
Instead of imposing a script upon his African cast, Rogosin gave them scenarios and let them improvise their own dialogue so they could create as accurate a picture as possible of their lives. The scenarios themselves were based on events the cast had actually lived through and in spite of their lack of experience they were able to impart these scenes with a verisimilitude you'd never find in a scripted movie or regular style of documentary. It might be raw and a bit awkward at times, but there can be no denying the power of what you're watching.
Of course the irony of this being filmed at the same time the battle against segregation in the US was just starting to really heat up isn't easy to forget. Ten years after making Come Back, Africa Rogosin made the second feature included in this package, Black Roots, which is a kind of oral history of African Americans told in words and music by a couple generations of African American musicians. Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Larry Johnson, Wende Smith, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy and others simply sit around in front of the cameras exchanging stories and singing songs relating ot the horrors of the African American experience in the 20th century.
They tell stories about everything from witnessing lynchings by the Klan to how their sharecropping families would work all season picking cotton and then not be paid a cent for their labour as the dealers would rob them blind. The songs they play range from old Leadbelly country blues numbers to more modern angry songs. Collier singing the lines "If I can't live my life in freedom/ I'll burn the whole place down" is a reflection of the state of African American anger at the time. After hearing their stories you may begin to have an inkling why patience was wearing so thin among their communities. Not only had their best leaders been killed or arrested, they had lived lives of horrible indignity for hundreds of years. I'd be pissed at any white liberal telling me change takes time if I had experienced even a modicum of what they and their families had endured.
Considering these films were both shot on film and the prints have been laying around for ever, both the sound and the visual quality are much better than you'd expect. While it's obviously not going to be up to the standards most people are used to, they were both still of a better quality than any number of movies I've seen put into digital format. However, even more important is how these films are still relevant today. While they are over fifty and forty years old respectively, both are not just important historical documents, they also put current conditions in both North America and South Africa (and any other place where indigenous and other populations have been oppressed by a majority or minority) into their proper context. When you see and hear the stories being told in either of these movies you might begin to understand how much further both societies have to travel before they can even begin to make redress for the past.
These two movies are examples of the power film has to tell stories and impart information in a way no other medium can approach, Watching these two examples of Rogosin's work lets you see the potential there is in cinema for effecting change, and how its power is being wasted by those who see it only as the means for making money. Documentary movies can be every bit as emotional and passionate as any other kind of movie, and what makes them even more frightening is they are telling the truth. No horror movie Hollywood churns out can match the fear and loathing either of these documentaries generate in their audiences.
(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Come Back Africa: The Movies of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2)
(Originally posted March 2014)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.