Viewable At Last: Come Back, Africa (1960)

The African Diaspora International Film Festival has been rolling along smoothly for a good four days now.  13 films have been screened thus far, and Facets is particularly proud to have hosted the Chicago premieres of ten of those films.  Most of them are from recent years, but Pim de la Parra’s One People (1976) and Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa (1960) are two older films that have been unearthed from obscurity.  Saturday evening’s screening of Come Back, Africa (which will be rescreened this Thursday, June 21, at 8:30pm) was followed by a Q&A session with three representatives of Chicago’s South African Consulate, as well as a reception where everybody was treated to hearty shares of food, drink, and social mingling.

Kudos are owed to Milestone Films for getting hold of Come Back, Africa, which they plan to release on DVD this summer.  Milestone were the ones who distributed and released Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding back in 2007.  They have some excellent projects in the queue, including 2013 releases of Shirley Clarke’s currently difficult-to-view (but available at Facets!) The Connection and Samuel Beckett’s Film (which I just threw a little something up about on the Film Portal.)

Come Back, Africa follows the company’s recent release of On The Bowery, Rogosin’s 1956 feature about impoverished alcoholics living in Manhattan’s skid row.  Go to the filmmaker’s IMDB page and you will notice that both Come Back, Africa and On The Bowery are classified as “documentary,” but don’t assume that Rogosin went into these areas and simply filmed what was happening around him.  Rather, Rogosin’s process involved familiarizing himself with the living conditions of his locations, from which he would then pick out inhabitants with little-to-no acting experience.  The non-professional actors would have significant input on the story and dialogue (which incorporated improvisation), so as to create an accurate reflection of life as they had lived it.  At the time, this approach to realism made Rogosin a much-admired figure among fellow independent filmmakers in New York, including John Cassavetes and the aforementioned Shirley Clarke, whose The Cool World from 1964 provides a similarly authentic look at black youth gang life in Harlem (and was the first filmmaking venture of one Frederick Wiseman, who served as producer.)

Rogosin earns extra credit in the “guerilla independent filmmaking” column for shooting Come Back, Africa in secret, gaining entrance into Sophiatown, Johannesburg by convincing the apartheid-enforcing government that he was working on some sort of travelogue/musical hybrid.  And there is plenty of music in this film, courtesy of street performers and the South African singer Miriam Makeba (who gained fame outside of her home country thanks to Come Back, Africa‘s premiere at the 1959 Venice Film Festival.)  These scenes are necessary to counter protagonist Zachariah’s struggles to maintain his own well-being as well as that of his family, all while being tossed between various white employers who are not about to cut him a break.

Following Saturday night’s screening, the visiting representatives of the South African Consulate declared Come Back, Africa to be “shocking,” “emotional,” and a means to “appreciate what we have now.”  This is a film that makes no secret of its politics, nor does it sugarcoat the realities of segregation, poverty, and the disheartening entwinement of the two.  Naturally, it is no surprise that Come Back, Africa ended up being banned in South Africa for nearly three decades, which doesn’t quite explain why the film has been so difficult to see outside of South Africa until this year.  But that’s just all the more reason to swing by Facets this Thursday, June 21st at 8:30 pm to experience Come Back, Africa for yourself.

– Garret Kriston

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