Saturday, June 23, 2012

Come Back, Africa

COME BACK, AFRICA            B                 
USA  South Africa  (95 mi)  1959  d:  Lionel Rogosin         Official site

I will look for you until I find you.
When the sun sets
and the cattle come back,
I think about you.
—Miriam Makeba, Lakutshon Ilanga YouTube (2:21)

COME BACK, AFRICA is a curious film, as it’s really a composite of at least two films, one black and one white, also one shot outside on the streets, using a guerrilla, shot-on-the-fly, cinéma vérité style that couldn’t be more vibrant and alive, and another rather amateurishly shot indoors with a fictionalized script written by two young anti-apartheid South African writers Lewis Nkosi and William Bloke Modisane (who also appear in the film as Lewis and Bloke) set in the harsh, historical reality of apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa.  While this may exhibit initial signs of Haskell Wexler’s distinctive style developed later in Medium Cool (1969), a much more successful attempt to blend history into cinema, the existence of apartheid remained largely unseen by most of the international world, so shining a spotlight directly upon a matter of national secrecy is of major historical importance.  Supposedly filmed in secret using lightweight and portable equipment by a white American filmmaker on a tourist visa, Rogosin, who lived in the country for a year, obtained permits to shoot travelogue style footage promoting South African tourism and the celebratory music in the country.  Inspired by Italian neorealism, Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922), and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), Rogosin decided to make films that expressed his political activism, dramatizing the plight of the oppressed.  Despite winning the Critic’s Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1960, this film could find no distribution in America, the same problem he encountered after the release of his first film ON THE BOWERY (1956), which documents New York’s skid row, forcing the director to actually purchase a New York City theater, which he re-named the Bleeker Street Cinema in order to exhibit controversial films, including his own works.  The documentary style time capsule photos shot by Ernst Artaria and Emil Knebel are what makes this film so historically riveting, as they strip away any dramatic pretense and instead offer a vivid sense of urgency, magnifying the contrast between the squalor of the endlessly flat, dilapidated, all-black shantytown of Sophiatown and the prosperous and economically booming, skyscraper filled all-white city of Johannesburg.

While the alluring images of nearly all-black workers racing from the heavily packed trains into the streets on their way to work in Johannesburg, accompanied by native drum beats on the soundtrack, offer another startling contrast, as this harrowing life in a virtual white city is so alien to the natural inclinations of blacks coming from the townships.  One of the workers is Zacharia Mgabi, an anonymously chosen black from Zululand, who immediately sets out looking for work and attempts to join a massive group of blacks working in the mines, but soon discovers you need a work permit to work as well as live in Johannesburg.  Nonetheless, there are interesting images training the miners how to use pick axes and shovels, where the black instructor literally breaks out into an expressive dance as he attempts to show how it’s all about rhythm and motion.  Zacharia eventually finds a wealthy white couple looking for a “house boy,” where the wife, Myrtle Berman (all the whites in the film are played by political activists), literally harangues him from the start, claiming his name “won’t do,” so she calls him Jack, but soon enough resorts to insults, calling him a dumb and ignorant native, supposedly an educated woman whose merciless hatred becomes the theme of the film, as in a worked up state of venomous rage Zacharia is fired as quickly as he’s hired, where the hostile reflections of the white employer are a stand-in for the nation’s demeaningly racist view of blacks.  Using non-professional actors, the film is not without major flaws, as the fictional dramatizations within the film feel raw and unrehearsed, often uncomfortably out of place with reality, where the lifeless energy saps the mood established from the intensity of the documentary imagery.  Zacharia spends his days moving from mine to dusty mine in nearby Soweto or seeking domestic work in Johannesburg, returning afterwards to Sophiatown, where he’s but one of thousands of others doing exactly the same thing, where he encounters the moral corruption even among blacks, where he’s robbed and hassled and later beat up by gang leaders, discovering people are desperate enough to do anything, it seems, for money.

As vital as the imagery is, it’s the interspersed music by Chatur Lal that energizes the film with a pulsating life, where among the most stunning images are the various street musicians that line the streets of Johannesburg, where often crowds of whites would gather just to watch, as young black children would perform in groups, from drums and penny whistlers to the elaborate choral rhythms and dance movements of township music, to an incredible doo wop version of Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear” Elvis Presley - (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear YouTube (1:47).  Zacharia spends his evenings commiserating with others in similar dire predicaments, alone and away from their families, making too little money to send home, which was their purpose in coming there, occasionally leading to late night sessions drinking or arguing about religion, where in one of these sessions a very young Miriam Makeba shows up, also a resident of Sophiatown, and sings two songs in their entirety Come back, Africa : Miriam Makeba, both songs on YouTube (4:45), a haunting lullaby “Lakutshon llanga,” while others join in a more rousing second number providing that rhythmic foundation to her soaring voice Miriam Makeba sings "Into Yam" from COME BACK, AFRICA ... YouTube (2:07). Despite the violence and poverty, Sophiatown was the hub of major black cultural activity, from music to artists and intellectuals, but it was eventually demolished a year after the filming by the government under apartheid, the residents displaced back to the townships, and the name changed to Triomf (Triumph) to make way for the development of white neighborhood housing.  As it turned out, too few whites wanted to live there, becoming something of an embarrassing eyesore, where in another 45 years, the name would be changed back to Sophiatown in 2006.  Eventually Zacharia sends for his wife Vinah (Vinah Bendile) and young son, living in a one-roomed home, where their troubled son tends to hang out with other kids on the street, even if all they do is continually get into fights.  But as work opportunities dry up, where blacks are routinely fired on the word of disgruntled or selfishly cruel whites, their hopes vanish along with them, joining the ranks of the impoverished and the destitute.  It’s hard enough for a man alone in a hostile environment, but this film makes it clear how much more difficult it is to attempt to raise a family while the laws of apartheid make it near impossible to stay together, leading to a finale that is so relentlessly downbeat and hopeless, all that’s left is a seething inner rage about to boil over into uncontrollable violence. 

No comments:

Post a Comment