During a rural famine in South Africa in 1959, farmer Zacharia Mgabi leaves his wife Vinah and children in Zululand to find work in Johannesburg. He is recruited to work in the gold mines, and although he has been promised that this will allow him to find higher paying work in Johannesburg, in truth his working permit allows him only to work in the mines before returning home. Desperate to earn more than the paltry pay at the mines, Zacharia nonetheless labors intensely along with hundreds of other impoverished blacks. Finally, he is able to procure a working pass and a job in Johannesburg as a cook for a white family. The cruel, racist wife calls Zacharia "Jack" and berates him constantly, complaining about his laziness and stupidity. Zacharia, who is overwhelmed by the luxuries and curiosities of the city and feels degraded by his job, commiserates with new friends Eddy and Steven. One day, after sipping some of the couple's scotch, Zacharia is fired and turns to Eddy for help in finding a new job before his work permit runs out. Eddy brings Zacharia to a bar, where the men laughingly suggest that he become a beggar. A woman tries to seduce Zacharia, but he resists, missing Vinah. After moving in with Steven, he gets a job washing cars, but is forced to kowtow to the white owner. When Zacharia and Eddy take a customer's fancy car for a joy ride, they are chastised, and soon after, both are fired after Eddy skips a day of work to attend a meeting of the insurgent African National Congress. When Vinah and the children come to Johannesbrug, Zacharia is thrilled to see them but worries that he will not be able to provide for them. They visit an aunt in nearby Sophiatown, a rural suburb in which black people live in poverty. Despite the unpaved streets and ramshackle homes, the people of Sophiatown enjoy a vibrant cultural life, and singing and dancing abound in the streets. The aunt allows the family to stay in her house, and soon Zacharia secures a job as a waiter in a hotel. Within days, however, a white guest falsely accuses him of attacking her, and he is fired once again. Vinah refuses to leave Sophiatown and instead suggests that she get a job as a domestic worker, but Zacharia forbids her to because she will have to live at her employer's house. One day, Vinah catches their son in a fight with other local boys, and later, Zacharia fights with Marumu, not realizing that he is the leader of a dangerous gang. At the bar, a man named Ken explains Marumu's background and mourns the fact that even among their own people there is lack of communication and inclusion. Ken believes that if people throughout South Africa could talk to one another, they could heal some of the political rift. The other men, however, scorn this optimism, believing that the white man will never stop patronizing the blacks. The men drink all day, and as they become drunk, one European-African man confesses that he feels out of place everywhere, while another states that only art has no national borders. At home, Zacharia, with only seventy-two hours left to find work, is forced to allow Vinah to take a job. He soon finds a position at a mine, but that night, he is arrested for sleeping with Vinah in her employer's home without permission. One officer threatens to rape Vinah, but another officer stops him. Vinah is terrified of what will happen to Zacharia, but her aunt assures her he will serve only a few days in jail. Just before Zacharia is released, Marumu comes to the house seeking revenge, and upon finding Vinah alone, kills her. When Zacharia returns home, he discovers her body, and explodes in grief.
Hugh A. Robertson
Come Back, Africa
Come Back, Africa was filmed on the sly in Sophiatown, a nonwhite ghetto just outside Johannesburg, the nation's most populous city. At the time when Rogosin started work, the apartheid regime was about halfway through the process of systematically destroying the Sophiatown district, forcibly removing all of the black, mixed-race, Indian, and Chinese inhabitants so the area could be razed, cheaply rebuilt, and renamed Triumf, a bitterly ironic name if ever there was one. As he had done with On the Bowery a few years earlier, Rogosin started production by spending extended time in the area where he planned to photograph the film. There he met and consulted with local activists, artists, and writers of different racial and social backgrounds. The idea was to find creative collaborators who could offer story suggestions, develop realistic dialogue, and play characters very much like themselves.
He ended up working closely on the screenplay with William Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, journalists who were affiliated with Drum, a progressive magazine with a mostly black readership. To keep the authorities at bay, Rogosin and company pretended they were making a travelogue that would attract tourists by showing off the wonders of the district. Anticipating the ostensible makers of phony films in movies like Ben Affleck's Argo (2012) and Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog (1997), the team had to make up dummy scripts and shoot bogus musical numbers so they'd have material to show if their credentials came under suspicion. Plenty of mendacity was involved, but it all served the interests of an urgent human-rights cause.
The story centers on Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi), a Zulu worker who travels from a village in the countryside to the gold mines outside Johannesburg, hoping to get work so he can feed his family. He finds a job in the mines, but it quickly fizzles out. Still determined to succeed, he goes to the city and tries a variety of low-level occupations there, ranging from parking-garage assistant to houseboy for an impossible-to-please white woman. Disaster strikes when he gets arrested for violating the complicated pass laws designed to keep nonwhites from living, traveling, or even showing their faces where they want. After a stretch in jail, Zachariah goes back home and discovers that Vinah (Vinah Makeba), his wife, has been murdered by a sociopathic black man who had tangled with him earlier.
Come Back, Africa builds suspense and emotion at an escalating pace, climaxing in a full-throated cry of rage over the injustices undergone by individuals and groups in a nation where oppression is propped up by the full force of the law. The cast of racially mixed actors includes white enemies of apartheid whose portrayals of unlikable, unsympathetic Afrikaners are based on their own observations of people and behaviors in their country, which they hope this movie can help to reform. Their presence is important, but the movie's most powerful energies come from its depiction of black people waging a daily struggle to understand their irrational environment and survive to fight another day, no matter how much malice and mistrust rise up to confront them.
Judged by Hollywood standards, the acting and technical quality of Come Back, Africa sometimes seems very rough. This is a result of the shoestring budget Rogosin had to work with, and it also reflects the challenges of shooting the picture in a semi-covert way, knowing that hostilities would erupt if the wrong people found out its true intentions. The movie has been criticized more seriously for depicting its white characters as a nonstop parade of racists, and for concluding the story with black-on-black violence. Rogosin knew exactly what he was doing, though. He allows the white-racist characters to stop just short of becoming caricatures, making them effective targets for the righteous anger provoked by their actions and attitudes. The black-on-black violence, meanwhile, is clear evidence of Rogosin's refusal to sentimentalize the victims of apartheid. Two of the things a brutal system will generate, he lets us know, are brutal people and brutal acts.
As entertainment, the best moments of Come Back, Africa are vividly alive. In an engrossing scene that gives the film its centerpiece, Zachariah sits in a shebeen, which is a sort of underground clubhouse and drinking spot, during a sociopolitical bull session that includes Nkosi, the sophisticated journalist, and Can Themba, a widely known left-wing radical, along with the gifted musician and antiapartheid militant Miriam Makeba, who sings two songs with truly blissful sweetness. Come Back, Africa helped launch Makeba on her journey to becoming the first African superstar on the world-music scene. Rogosin helped her obtain a visa to attend the film's premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Italian Film Critics prize. Then he and singer Harry Belafonte brought her to England and the United States, but when she tried to attend her mother's funeral in 1960 she learned that her South African passport had been revoked. Makeba and Rogosin subsequently fell out, but she remained an international star and human-rights advocate for years to come, finally returning to Johannesburg in 1991, when apartheid was breathing its last.
Rogosin saw filmmaking as a way to comment on critical issues like pacifism, fascism, and apartheid. In the early 1960s he created New York's adventurous Bleecker Street Cinema, which opened with the premiere of Come Back, Africa and remained an important venue for serious film. He also helped establish the New American Cinema Group along with Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, Robert Downey, and others, but independent filmmakers faced many obstacles, and Rogosin completed only ten shorts and features between 1957 and 1974, his too-brief period of active filmmaking. His work makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity, though. Cassavetes once praised Rogosin as "probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time," which is quite a compliment even though "semidocumentary" would be more accurate, and Scorsese has called Come Back, Africa a work of "terrible beauty." It is one of his greatest works, and no one interested in thoughtful movies should even think of missing it.
Director: Lionel Rogosin
Producer: Lionel Rogosin
Screenplay: Lionel Rogosin with Lewis Nkosi and William Modisane
Cinematographer: Ernst Artaria, Emil Knebel
Film Editing: Carl Lerner
Cast: Zacharia Mgabi (Zachariah), Vinah Makeba (Vinah), Martha (Auntie), George Malybye (George), Miriam Makeba (Miriam), Morris Hugh (Morris), Myrtle Berman (Myrtle), Rams (Rams), Lewis Nkosi (Lewis), Bloke Modisane (Bloke), Can Themba (Can), Hazel Futa (Hazel).
by David Sterritt
Come Back, Africa
Come Back, Africa - Lionel Rogosin's COME BACK, AFRICA (1959) to be available from MILESTONE FILMS in a Lionel Rogosin boxed set in late 2011 or early 2012
With confidence based on the reception of his earlier film On the Bowery (1957), Lionel Rogosin decided to take a real chance. For several years he had considered making a film to protest apartheid. After meeting the secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, and South African writer Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country), he decided this was something he had to do. In an incredibly courageous act of defiance, Rogosin entered South Africa on a tourist visa with his pregnant wife Elinor in tow (their eldest son Michael was born there during the making of the film).
The couple lived in the country for a year, making friends and important connections while observing the political system of oppression. Even though film equipment had become more lightweight and portable, it was still impossible to film without attracting the attention of the authorities. They applied for a permit to film, on different occasions presenting their project as a travelogue to promote South African tourism or a documentary celebrating the music of the country. Despite bureaucratic delays, hostility and the great danger of being discovered, authorization to film was granted, and Rogosin quickly gathered together a cast and crew. The plot for COME BACK, AFRICA was written under the guidance of two young anti-apartheid Africans, Lewis Nkosi and William "Bloke" Modisane, who appear in the film. Also making an incredible singing appearance is the very young, very beautiful and now-legendary singer, Miriam Makeba.
The film produced is now one of the most defiant, powerful and exciting social films ever created - so harshly truthful that it was banned in South Africa until after Apartheid ended and still never shown on American television. The final scene of Zacharia's despair is one of the most heart-rending in all of cinema. COME BACK, AFRICA is a thrilling, unforgettable classic!
Lionel Rogosin's COME BACK, AFRICA (1959) to be available on video in a Lionel Rogosin boxed set in late 2011 or early 2012!
Come Back, Africa - Lionel Rogosin's COME BACK, AFRICA (1959) to be available from MILESTONE FILMS in a Lionel Rogosin boxed set in late 2011 or early 2012
After the opening credits, the following written statement appears: "This film was made secretly in order to portray the true conditions of life in South Africa today. There are no professional actors in this drama of the fate of a man and his country. This is the story of Zachariah-one of the hundreds of thousands of Africans forced each year off the land by the regime and into the gold mines." Although the onscreen credits include a 1959 copyright statement for Lionel Rogosin Films, the film was not registered for copyright.
As noted in a 1967 Los Angeles Times article, the film's title was taken from that of the African National Congress anthem. All of the characters have the same name as the actors who play them. Although the main character is spelled "Zacharia" in the opening credits, his name is spelled "Zachariah" in the written statement. Some of the dialogue is spoken in African dialect with English subtitles. Throughout the film, scenes of Zacharia's fictional plight are interspersed with documentary footage of life in Johannesburg and Sophiatown, contrasting the metropolitan city with the rural, poverty-stricken village. Native music is heard throughout, and in one scene, noted South African folk singer Miriam Makeba, making her feature film debut, sings two unnamed songs. According to a modern source, as a result of Makeba's performance in Come Back, Africa, Harry Belafonte arranged for her U.S. concert debut and a recording contract with RCA Victor.
As shown in the film, Sophiatown was a black rural settlement outside of Johannesburg. The town was established in 1904 and quickly became a lively refuge for black South Africans, as well as Indian and Chinese citizens. On February 9, 1955, the government forcibly relocated the residents to Meadowlands, Soweto in order to create in its place Triomf, a residential area restricted to whites. Over the following eight years, removals continued until the town was razed and 65,000 blacks relocated, some of whom were forced to separate from their families because of government racial classifications.
An April 1960 Time article described the lengths director Lionel Rogosin had to go to in order to capture film footage in apartheid South Africa: He entered the country in 1957 as a tourist and lived there for a year before obtaining a government permit to shoot a "musical travelogue." Shooting lasted for three months and was accomplished largely in secret; even the actors were not allowed full access to the script. Rogosin "discovered" Zacharia, a Zulu office worker, at a railroad station. The director financed much of the film's $70,000 budget himself.
According to a 1967 Los Angeles Times article, Rogosin edited the raw footage in London, where he also "dubbed in the dialog," although much of the film's dialogue was clearly captured during the production. The Time article also noted that, upon the film's completion and after its European release, Rogosin was unable to secure an American exhibitor. In response, he bought a three-year lease on the Bleeker Street Theater in New York and ran the film there.
Come Back, Africa played out of competition at the Venice Film Festival in September 1959 and there won the Critic's Prize. In America, reviews were generally laudatory. Although many critics found the quality of the direction and acting lacking, they widely praised Rogosin's attempt to portray the plight of contemporary South African blacks and applauded his ability to obtain footage under difficult restrictions. The Hollywood Citizen-News reviewer, however, reproached the picture for its "prejudice," calling it "detrimental to the cause of integration and equal rights." Time magazine named the film one of the top pictures of 1960.
In May 1978, Box Office reported that Rogosin planned to reissue Come Back, Africa "in view of the current African situation." At that point, the film had never been shown in South Africa. A November 2004 Variety article stated that the film had recently been restored by Italy's Bologna Institute for South Africa's National Film and Video Foundation, and that this version had its premiere on November 19, 2004 in Johannesburg. Although that article stated that Henry Nxumalo, a journalist who helped inform the world about the treatment of blacks in South Africa, appears in Come Back, Africa, Nxumalo died in 1957.
Shown at Vancouver International Film Festival September 26 - October 12, 1998.