Blu-ray distributed by Milestone Cinematheque, 2014
The films of Lionel Rogosin are a testament to his quest for independent, political filmmaking, which he himself termed a poetic realism—a type of marriage between Italian neorealism and the style of Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic documentaries. His first film, On the Bowery (1956), documenting New York’s skid row, won the Grand Prize for Documentary at the 1956 Venice Film Festival and went on to heavily influence the Free Cinema Movement in London. Furthermore, the film prompted the emergence of the New American Cinema of Jonas Mekas, John Cassavetes, and Frederick Wiseman and the consolidation of the British Free Cinema of John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson, and Karel Reisz. Its poetic intermixture of documentary and fiction hailed the beginnings of a poetic experimental documentary form that was to be expressed in the work of Santiago Álvarez and that went on to manifest famously in Rogosin’s next film, Come Back, Africa (1959).
The Blu-ray two-disc set Come Back, Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume II released by Milestone Cinematheque is an important collection of films and documentaries for anyone interested in apartheid South Africa and African American history, respectively. Initiated in 1990 by Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, Milestone has become internationally known for releasing groundbreaking documentaries, classic cinematic masterpieces, and US independent features. Following the release of Rogosin’s On the Bowery, Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964), and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Come Back, Africa continues in Milestone’s efforts to rediscover and distribute important films from the margins of cinema.
The restoration of Come Back, Africa was encouraged by Lionel Rogosin’s heirs and supported by the cultural foundation of Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio in Bologna and Fabrica, conducted by the Bologna archive, preservation, and restoration lab of Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. Based on the original negatives and a fine-grain dupe negative preserved at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, the British Film Institute, and the London Television Archives, the film-to-digital transfer superbly captured the grain of the film stock while minimizing digital artifacts. Disc 1 includes a two-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese, who hails Rogosin as one of the greatest film-makers of all time. In addition, the first disc also provides an evocative sixty-four-minute description of the making of the documentary, which includes lengthy interviews with Rogosin’s wife, activists, actors, and former Drum journalist and coscreenwriter of Come Back, Africa, Lewis Nkosi. The disc also has Come Back, Africa, which has been gorgeously restored and painstakingly remastered in its original 4:3 aspect ratio.
The second disc features the sixty-three-minute documentary film Black Roots (1970), produced ten years after Come Back, Africa was released. The film serves as a unique piece of African American oral history told by the likes of the Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Larry Johnson, Wende Smith, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, and others. The film presents an intimate round table discussion between these individuals, touching on their personal stories of horrific encounters with the Ku Klux Klan, sharecropping in the South for minimal pay, and day-to-day experiences of racism in their communities. These stories are interwoven with musical interludes [End Page 118] that range from Lead Belly’s country blues to more contemporary folk songs and are juxtaposed over beautiful and intimate closeups of African Americans from the era. Also included on the second disc is Bitter Sweet Stories, directed by Lionel Rogosin’s son Michael, a twenty-seven-minute documentary on the making of Black Roots. The last special feature is a seventy-four-minute documentary titled Have You Seen Drum Lately? (1989), which contextualizes the notorious South African magazine Drum, a hub of South African political and social creativity. Directed by Jürgen Schadeberg, the documentary includes rare archival footage by Drum magazine’s journalists and images of Sophiatown before it was leveled and rebuilt into a white suburb.
Now twenty years since the ostensible end of apartheid, Lionel Rogosin’s film Come Back, Africa, which won...