Come Back, Africa (Lionel Rogosin, 1959) + An American in Sophiatown (Michael Rogosin, 2007)

Lionel Rogosin’s second film is a bona fide milestone of African cinema.

It’s so noble, and so powerful, that its flaws are entirely excusable; in any case, the reasons behind the film’s slightly uneven tone are intriguing. Come Back, Africa was made under stressful conditions. The nosy, Apartheid-supporting South African government continually threatened to interfere with the film, which they (correctly) suspected of being seditious. Rogosin kept prevaricating, pretending he was making a documentary about the life of Africans to show international audiences that all Africans were an “essentially happy people”. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: Rogosin focused his lens on the tribulations of black South Africans, and captures the humanity of all concerned. The blacks aren’t saints: even our protagonist, Zachria (Zachria Makeba), is mischievous and sometimes mendacious. And the whites aren’t devils, with a handful of sympathetic white men – although all the white women appear to be shrieking, racist harpies.

Zachria Modisane, a non-professional actor, gives a phenomenal performance.
Zachria Modisane, a non-professional actor, gives a phenomenal performance.

Sometimes, clumsy portmanteaux are the best way of describing hybrid natures. Come Back, Africa is a “docufiction” – Zachria and Vinah (the protagonist’s wife) both share their respective actor’s name, with racist characters being played by trenchantly anti-racist activists. Myrtle Berman plays a particularly memorable banshee (‘Zachria?’ she says contemptuously when Zachria comes to her house to work as a servant. ‘No, that won’t do. I’ll call you Jack.’) The documentary street scenes are genuine documentary scenes, replete with bemused onlookers glancing at the camera. Such scenes do more than add shades of realism, though – they imbue the township with vitality. The music, reminiscent of classic South African acts like Smodern or Sax Jive, is short-lived but buoyant; for the denizens of Sophiatown, it’s a necessary escape, and a way to reclaim the public space.

A particularly startling musical scene – featuring a sing-along in a shebeen, led by soon-to-be global superstar Miriam Makeba – emphasises the role of music in black South Africans’ lives. Makeba sings, and we soon realise we’re flies on the wall, watching well-read indigenous Africans arguing passionately in English about frameworks of racial repression and alterity. Music (creation) and politics (recreation, since none of the characters are activists) contrast tonally, yet co-exist in the same space. This scene, featuring cogently argued accusations against said institutionalised racism, is the closest the film gets to out-and-out polemicism, with several of the actors being played by the activist likes of Lewis Nkosi and William “Bloke” Modisane. Points are being voiced strongly and clearly, yet the film never lapses into didacticism, even at its script’s clunkiest moments – a testament to the committed performances and detached direction. Rogosin is no Kalatozov.

Alright, so it’s a little roughshod. But the film’s slightly stilted nature gives the film a stop-start tension that lasts ‘til its explosive denouement. You’ll never see a film that ends on a rawer, more battered, shattering note. The performances of these non-professional actors weren’t simply performances: on some profound level, they were lived. We’re not watching characters, we’re watching people. So powerful and unexpected is the film’s climax that it hits like an emotional tsunami stronger than those produced by Ray (Nicholas or Satyajit) or de Sica – the latter being, along with Robert Flaherty, Rogosin’s chief influence.

We learn about these influences in the accompanying documentary, An American in Sophiatown, directed by Lionel’s son Michael (who was present at the CFF screening). It’s relatively short, but illuminating; it reveals the lengths to which Rogosin went to conceal the true nature of the film from the South African government, and the powerful personal and political connection between the director and his cast. It’s intriguing, and symptomatic of the “docufiction” nature of the film, that the cast coalesced almost by accident. Myrtle Berman and her husband Marty got involved because they were sympathetic to Rogosin’s politics, while Miriam Makeba was merely a well-regarded but not-yet-famous singer recommended by one of the locals. Miriam fans be warned, though: she doesn’t come across too well in this documentary.

Miriam Makeba's début performance, shortly before she shot to fame in the U.S.
Miriam Makeba’s début performance, shortly before she shot to fame in the U.S.

This “meta-documentary” provides interesting contextualisation, but Come Back, Africa stands proudly on its own two celluloid feet. It’s a historical document, and was seen as such by the American press, which was very impressed by the film. And so would you be. See it.

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