On the township

After 50 years, Lionel Rogosin's groundbreaking film Come Back, Africa finally gets its due

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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.

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