|My presence today, December 12, 2000 at the burial of Lionel
Rogosin at Hollywood Forever Cemetery located on 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard
at the heart of Hollywood was a tribute to a remarkable man who in filming
Come Back Africa clandestinely in 1958 in South Africa had captured
the last intellectual snapshot of some members of the Sophiatown Renaissance
cultural generation: Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi, Miriam Makeba, Bloke Modisane
and others. Come Back Africa is in effect an intellectual portrait
of the last generation of the New African Movement. This, in and of itself,
is an extraordinary achievement. That the man who achieved is no more, I
have conveyed this earlier today by e-mail to Lewis Nkosi in Switzerland.
I have described in detail the service and the burial. It took place in
a relatively small Jewish cemetery within whose confines is a beautiful
old synagogue or temple. Today was the first time ever being inside one.
The liturgical ceremony presided over by a rabbi was instructive and deeply
moving and strangely exhilarating since it conveyed the state of eternal
piece. We walked about ten minutes to put Lionel Rogosin in his final resting
place. The weather was overcast, with the sun and now and then breaking
through the clouds, with a crispy mildly cold wind constantly nipping our
bones. In his eternal resting place, Lionel Rogosin has a spectacular view
of the H O L L Y W O O D sign, in front of him in the not too distant mountains.
Beside the seven members of the Rogosin family, there about twelve other
mourners. I assume that many of the other mourners, like myself, seemed
to have read about Rogosin’s 10 am burial in an obituary notice that
appeared in today’s Los Angeles Times. Upon reading it, I cancelled all
my morning courses at Pitzer College in order I could attend. I conveyed
all of this to Lewis Nkosi, even though he was not as close to Rogosin as
Bloke Modisane had been, he has more consistently reflected on the historical
significance of Come Back Africa in South African cultural history. The
other reason I wanted Nkosi to be fully informed about the burial ceremony
of Rogosin is that conjointly with Bloke Modisane, they helped him write
the treatment and screenplay of the film. This may partly explain Lewis
Nkosi’s abiding interest in the fate of the film across four decades. Nkosi’s
comments on Come Back Africa seem to have been the first extended
appreciation of it as a work of art made by any South African. But before
looking at them, it is interesting to note the comments written anonymously
in the Liberal Party newspaper Contact by a white actor on the film immediately
upon acclamation of the film internationally at Cannes and Venice film festivals:
“I agreed to play in Lionel Rogosin’s film Come Back Africa. This
is the film that has been described both as a searing exposure of apartheid
and a malicious, cynical exaggeration. What is the truth? I first met Lionel
Rogosin at a party. He told me that he had come to this country to do a
documentary travel film featuring African music. Now that he had been here
for several months he was so appalled by the conditions under which many
Africans were forced to live, that he had completely changed his orientation.
He now wanted to give his film a more serious content. Some months later,
he approached me to act in the film. . . . Briefly we discussed the part
he wanted me to play, that of a typical white employer. When I reported
for shooting, I was initiated into his ‘technique’. The first thing that
I learned was that two African journalists had guided and advised Rogosin
in the script. Although Rogosin had been in this country for seven months,
soaking up background as he liked to call it, he had relied heavily on his
assistants for the incidents in the story. Also these incidents were in
outline only. The dialogue was only hinted at. . . . For the one shebeen
scene, Rogosin took a tape recorder into a Sophiatown shebeen. Unknown to
the somewhat inebriated patrons, he taped a discussion on the South African
political and social scene and and on white Liberals. He was so intrigued
with the content that he located the leading participants in the conversation,
played the tape back to them when they were sober and managed to get them
to re-enact the discussion. . . . It is obvious that the film was made from
a specially African point of view, but the question is still there: how
truthful is it? To me that hinges on a second question: how many whites
are familiar with, understand or appreciate the African point of view when
the usual master-servant restrains have gone? I ask this in all humbleness
because working in this film was an amazing experience and a revelation
for me. Lionel Rogosin taught me a great deal” (‘Truth about Rogosin’, October
3, 1959). In other words, Rogosin was questing for historical realism in
his portrayal of the making of South African modernity among rural and urban
Africans. This realism had already been established in the context of South
African modernism by Peter Abrahams with his pathbreaking novel Mine Boy
(1946). In some sense, Come Back Africa would seem to have found
its inspiration in this novel. Since Mine Boy itself is inconceivable
without Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), it would not only seem
to be a logical consistency or merely a completion of a circle when a director
coming from the American modernity makes a film about the historical tribulations
of South African modernity. One could posit that Wright’s literary consciousness
partly comes from Gertrude Stein. It is perhaps this complex symmetry that
explains the classic status of Come Back Africa in South Africa.
Practically all the participants in the making of the film seem to have
felt that something extraordinary was in the offing. Lewis Nkosi’s review
of the film seems to have been ambiguous because of the Come Back
Africa’s impreciseness about its historical location. In this context,
Lewis Nkosi’s review of the film is revealing: “It’s hard to work at anything
truly creative in South Africa---to use the kind of material found in this
country---without becoming involved in a very personal sense with the tremendous
problems that affect all sections of the population. Lionel Rogosin’s ckoice
of material involved the social problems that affect urban Africans in the
major industrual city of Johannesburg. We all admired his brave attempts
to explore the social fabric of a policy like Apartheid, a process which
would not only need an understanding of the social organisation of peoples
under apartheid, but would also necessitate a sorting out of confused and
mixed human motives responsible for this kind of social organisation. .
. . Our work on the film started in Sophiatown where most of the film was
shot. Bloke Modisane and I helped in the writing of the script. In the evenings,
whenever we had the time, we went into a huddle with Lionel, talking, arguing
and collating facts on the life of the urban Africans. Lionel would cart
his tape-recorder around to the townships where we listened to typical township
characters talking in the sharply sensitised dialogue of the townships.
It was in these small gatherings that people often revealed more poignantly
their innermost fears, hopes, aspirations. It was also during this preparatory
stage of the film that we found the work stimulating in a very creative
sense. . . . The film is not great by any standard. There are too many technical
weaknesses in the development of the story. However, with all these faults
the story emerges as a powerful document of social truth such as no other
producer’s camera has unfolded in this country. Some local newspapers have
published silly and ill-informed criticism of this film, contending that
it was biased, exaggerated, and distorted. They have argued that it should
have featured Meadowlands as a model township. These are stupid criticisms!
The film sets out to tell the story of what happens to a man when he leaves
the reserves for the big city! It does not pretend to be a documentary on
the housing problem in the Union nor was the producer obliged to vindicate
the Government” (“Come Back Africa: On Making a Film”, Fighting Talk,
February 1960). My communicating to Lewis Nkosi today the sad splendor of
Lionel Rogosin grave side, was because of my having become aware in 1987
while in exile in the then West Berlin that they had worked together with
Bloke Modisane in the making of the film. Although I had heard about the
legendary film for decades, it was only in that year of 1987 that I had
the first opportunity to see a film in a class I was auditing in my post-doctoral
work at Berlin Technical University. The German professor of media studies
who showed the film had a high opinion of Lionel Rogosin’s documentary work.
Upon seeing the film, I was profoundly moved. I decided to trace the whereabouts
of Rogosin in order to thank him for having portrayed and captured such
a crucial moment in our cultural history. Within two weeks I located Rogosin
in London through many telephone calls to New York and Los Angeles. When
I told my German professor that I had had a telephone conversation with
Rogosin, he was in total disbelief that Rogosin was still alive. He had
assumed that he had been dead for decades since he had not heard much about
him since completing his critical film studies in the late 1960s.
Being a product of this remarkable decade, on reflection earlier today after
the funeral of Lionel Rogosin on that moment of 13 years ago, I think the
film of Rogosin that my German professor was truly impressed by was the
anti-war documentary Good Times, Wonderful Times (1968). When the
film was shown in class, I found it very fascinating but equally bewildering.
The German professor was just beside himself about the greatness of the
film. I have not seen the film since then. Although Rogosin did send me
some of his films in West Berlin when our correspondence and friendship
blossomed, it was not included in the package. But I hope to see the film
soon in preparation for a monograph on Lionel Rogosin I intend to write
in the near future. I must not forget to mention that the German professor
also showed in class, since he noticed that I was so much taken up with
Lionel Rogosin, On the Bowery (1955). I think the film is a near
masterpiece. John Cassavetes, the godfather of the American independent
film movement, is quoted as having said at one time that Rogosin is
“probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time”. On seeing On
the Bowery, one understands what Cassavetes meant, even though one could
easily say how about Dziga-Vertov, Joris Evans, Robert Flaherty and others!
One reason I felt compelled to communicate to Lewis Nkosi today the death
and funeral of Rogosin is that I always remembered a letter from him to
me in which he mentioned that he had not seen Lewis Nkosi for nearly 25
years after working together on Come Back Africa, although Lewis
Nkosi had been in exile since 1960. In this letter of December 7th, 1987
from London, Rogosin writes: “I have been in touch with Bill Sloan at MOMA
[Museum of Modern Art in New York] and have authorised him to send copies
of those films which he has in his possession to you after you have worked
out arrangements with him. . . . Give my regards to Lewis Nkosi and tell
him I hope that we can meet some time after all these years. The last time
was 1964. In case he is not going to attend the Festival, I would appreciate
it if you could give me his address and telephone number. That’s all there
is for the moment”. One reason for this communication from Rogosin was my
having solicited permission to show one or two of his films at the 1988
West Berlin Black Film Festival, an annual event which I organized with
an African American friend which began in 1986. I’m not sure that Lionel
Rogosin and Lewis Nkosi ever met again since 1964. The reason for the uncertainty
is that I kept forgetting to ask Lewis Nkosi, and this compounded that on
certain matters Nkosi never responds. For instance in the late 1980s, at
the annual conferences on South African literature at Bad Boll in West Germany,
when I use to ask him about H. I. E. Dhlomo, he would never respond. It
was only in 1996, in a long telephone conversation with him now being a
professor of literature at the University of Wyoming (at Laramie) and myself
occupying a similar position at the Claremont Colleges (in Los Angeles),
that he confessed that in his younger days in Durban (in all probability
in the mid-1950s) he had been a protégé of the great essayist.
I fell certain that Lewis Nkosi and Lionel Rogosin were never to meet again
since the last encounter of 1964. In the many telephone conversations between
Lewis Nkosi and myself until 1998 when he moved to Switzerland, whenever
the name of Lewis Rogosin would come up between us, he would speak of him
in very respectful tones. I conclude this threnody with a different kind
of sad note: although Lionel Rogosin and I have lived in the same city of
Los Angeles for last six years, not more than 25 miles from each other,
we never met because of the 1990 falling-out between us. Elsewhere I will
say more about this. The end result of it is that as of today: I have never
met Rogosin in person and I will never meet him in this world. This is the
reason that when I read this morning in the Los Angeles Times, that Rogosin
had passed away last Friday and his burial was going to be in Hollywood
this morning, I knew immediately that I had to attend his funeral. The attendance
of the funeral and this threnody are an atonement in respect of a great
man. In a telephone call to Ezekiel Mphahlele in Pretoria later this week,
I intend to describe to him the beautiful and small funeral Lionel Rogosin
had this morning. It does not matter that in all probability Mphahlele and
Rogosin never meet or knew each other since the former went into voluntary
exile in 1957, a year before the latter came to South Africa to make Come
Back Africa. What is fundamentally important is the reconstruction of
South African cultural history in the twentieth-century, a century which
ended a year ago.
[The immediate context of this essay written about twelve years ago was my assisting Lionel Rogosin from West Berlin, while he was in London, to publicly show Come Back Africa (1959) for the first time in South Africa. This happened either in late 1987 or in early 1988. So the film was eventually shown in my country nearly thirty years after its making there. Lewis Nkosi, who was then living in Warsaw and with whom I was in close contact, was pleased with this eventuation. Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane had collectively written the script of the film with Lionel Rogosin. My first watching of the film in a post-doctoral seminar at Berlin Technical University left an enormous impression. It opened a horizon on the cultural history of my country of which I was not as familiar as I should have. Although I never mentioned Come Back Africa even once in the following lecture, I then believed very strongly that it was the film which future South African filmmakers will have to learn enormously from in order to construct a national cinema. My meeting Lewis Nkosi for the first time during my six years in West Germany as well as my encountering this film explain my constant engagement with Drum writers or the Sophiatown Renaissance phenomenon.
The essay was published, although in a drastically altered form in Jumpcut,
LIONEL ROGOSIN: MAKING REALITY EXCITING AND MEANINGFUL.
To make the infiniteness of reality exciting and
Lionel Rogosin is ine of the brilliant masters of compassion and empathy in the history of cinema, or more specifically, in the history of documentary film. This was the view endorsed by no lesser master than Basil Wright, one of the principal exponents of the British Documentary Film Movement of the 1930s. In a wiedly enthusiastic review of Rogosin's first film, On the Bowery, Wright not only places Rogosin within the great tradition of documentary film making represented by figures like Robert Flaherty, Mark Donskoi, Humphrey Jennings, Vladimir I. Pudovkin and Alexander Dovshenko, but also, and this is truly astonishing, he goes on to compare the film with Dostoeyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Wright, whose own Song of Ceylon is usually designated as one of the high points of the British documentary film movement, and was warmly respected for his severe defense of the fundamental principles of documentary film making, makes clear that his salutation of Lionel Rogosin's entrance into the world of film culture is not made lightly. In this review of 1956, which appeared in Sight and Sound, Wright poses the question as to whether a film consisting of staged scenes, as seems to have been the case with On the Bowery, could still be designated as a documentary film. He answers in the affirmative, indicating that also Flaherty's classics, like Nanook and Moana, were restaged, or more appropriately, reconstructed. It ought perhaps be emphasised that this review by Wright is both a celebration and a critique of On the Bowery.1
Perhaps the most innovative and dominant figures in the history of documentary film were Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov. Whereas the American was more interested in establishing the realistic principles of documentary film making as a secure tradition, the Russian did impose experimentalism and innovativeness as the dominant constructs of documentary film. Today if we can trace a particular tradition in documentary film stretching from Dziga Vertov through Joris Ivens to Fernando Birri and Santiago Alvarez, we could equally chart another documentary film tradition extending from Robert Flaherty through John Grierson and Basil wright to Frederick Wiseman. The Dziga-Vertovian tradition has always sought to integrate to each other the forms of fiction and documentary film, while the Flahertian tradition has felt the need to articulate the uniqueness of documentary film form. It is therefore not accidental that for the former tradition historicism is an important guiding philosophical construct, while for the latter tradition naturalism is a crucial poetic principle. One of the most authoritative works on the history of documentary film, Documentary Film by Paul Rotha, posits Dziga-Vertov and Robert Flaherty as founders of distinct documentary film schools, the former being the forger of the News-Reel tradition and the latter being the creator of the naturalist (romantic) tradition.2 The legitimacy and pertinency of thse designations need not detain us for us to see their cogency. It was within this complex ensemble of historical and artistic relationships that Rogosin had to situate himself. It is clear, as it was to Rogosin when he wrote his manifesto in a 1960 issue of Film Culture, "Interpreting Reality (Notes on the Esthetics and Practices of Improvisational Acting)", that the major contention between the Dziga-Vertovian and the Flahertian tradition was on the question of realism: What is reality in documentary film making?
In this manifesto of 1960, which seems to be the only existant document where Lionel Rogosin fully articulates a philosophical position on the nature of documentary film tradition, while acknowledging the influence upon him of Flaherty and De Sica, as creators of great poetry on the screen, paradoxically disputes the designation of Flaherty's work as documentary film, as much as disowning it for the designation of his own work, because according to Rogosin, documentary film form is more akin to the factual report of a sociologist than to the creation of great poetry on the screen.3 For him 'documentary' is only a "meaningless catalogue of stale, factual representation". It was this characterisation of documentary film which led Peter Davis in an essay, "Rogosin and Documentary", which appeared in the 1962 issue of Film Culture, to protest vehemently against Rogosin's understanding of documentary film form.4 That Rogosin's position on documentary film in this manifesto is untenable is quite clear, but what is still fascinating about it, as it will be clear in a moment, is its theorising on realism in relation to film.
When we look at the universally accepted formulation of the fundamental principles of documentary film by John Grierson, which because of their authoritativeness and validity have become classical, it becomes all the more clear that Rogosin has mis-apprehended the structure and constituents of documentary film, even if paradoxically in his filmic praxis, especially On the Bowery, confoirms the validity of the classical principles. Probably the most universally accepted definition of documentary film is that formulated by Grierson: documentary as 'the creative treatment of actuality'. This definition encompasses a multiplicity of poetic documentary film styles ranging from the lyricism of Joris Ivens to the stoicism of Santiago Alvarez. Grierson has postulated three principles of documentary film: that documentary film should capture or convey the essence of a living story or living scene; that non-professional actors in their 'natural' environment offer a better possibility for the film documentarist to present a complex interpretation of the real world; and lastly, that the materials or stories informing the structure of documentary film should be raw and taken from real life eather than from acted circles.5 Practically all the films of Lionel Rogosin, On the Bowery, Come Back Africa, Good Times, Wonderful Times and his several short films, are inscribed by these principles formulated by Grierson. That Rogosin's films belong within this genre of film making is clear, what is contentious and debatable is the poetic nature of their realism.
In the aforementioned manifesto, Lionel Rogosin defines as one of his principal tasks the interpretation of reality into exciting and meaningful constructs, which he sees as an artistic process, rather than the mere presentation of objective reality, which to him is usually than not a false image of reality. It would seem then, that for Rogosin the authentic reconstruction of reality in exciting and meaningful ways should be the cardinal construct of documentary film, in so far as this genre for him is exemplified by the works of Robert Flaherty. That Rogosin in On the Bowery has spontaneously captured the reconstructed reality of the hopelessness of alcoholics on Skid Row, and that in Come Back Africa he has meaningfully rendered the complex reality of apartheid and its complex byways, and that in Good Times, Wonderful Times he has in significant ways conveyed the distance between the horrendous reality of war and the illusion of their understanding in the minds of middle class intellectuals, these are achievements which have made these film texts the reference point of documentary film history. In them, a powerful re-interpretation of reality is realized. The realism in Rogosin's documentary films is of a general human interest, which Bertolt Brecht postulated in opposition to Georg Lukacs: "Realism is an issue not only for literature: it is a major political, philosophical and practical issue and must be handled and explained as such---as a matter of general human interest."6 This is the realism of transposition rather than of mere reflection; the transposition process facilitates the intervention of historical knowledge.
It is in the imparting of the various forms of historical knowledge that inform the poetic structure of Rogosin's documentary films. In the context of Rogosin's filmic praxis, historical knowledge means living knowledge which can open a way to intervention thus facilitating the possible alteration of the situation depicted in them. This is the meaning of what Rogosin writes in the 1960 manifesto as his central concern in making documentary films: "I want to give man a new dignity, to make a true national hero of a Nebraska farmer, a Pennsylvania coal miner, a Harlem taxi driver. One of the mainstreams of American art---from Whitman to Flaherty---aimed at precisely this goal. . . The face of an American coal miner is as unique as a Zulu tribesman or a homeless Bowery man." Indeed, it could be said that Rogosin in his documentary films attempts to capture the potry and passion of everyman who Walt Whitman delebrated in his poetry. It is this everyman that Basil Wright was alluding to when he kept on making references and similarities between Lionel Rogosin and Fyodor Dostoeyevsky: "'I do not bow to you personally, but to the suffering humanity in your person.' Thus Raskolnikov to Sonia. Thus, too, Lionel Rogosin to the people of the lower depths to whom his deeply compassionate film is in its entirety dedicated. . . And Rogosin insists that we must love them; he seems to say, with Dostoeyevsky, that 'the sense of their own degradation is as essential to those reckless undridled natures as the sense of their own generosity.'. . . Such phrases are irrelevant and misleading, unless you apply the same ruling to Dostoeyevsky's work---no apologies by the way for the constant references." A recent authoritative study of the history of documentary film, Richard Meran Barsam's Nonfiction Film: A Critical History, draws historical and critical parallels between Flaherty and Rogosin: "Like Flaherty with Nanook of the North, Rogosin tells the story from the inside, and, like Flaherty, he tells it with keen observation and deep compassion. And also like Flaherty, he was able to go into the open with his portable equipment, to record the sights and sounds of a world that his audience knew mostly by superstition and stereotype."7 From these observations, one from Basil Wright, one of the outstanding film makers within the British documentary movement of the 1930s, and another from Richard Meran Barsam, one of the leading authorities on the history of non-fiction film, one can see that the appearance of Lionel Rogosin as a documentary film maker was a truly memorable occasion.
Part of the auspiciousness of Lionel Rogosin's emergence within documentary film culture lay, beside the brilliance and orginality displayed in his feel for film form, in the fact that his films intersected within three different national cultural experiences: the founding of the Free CInema in Britain of the early 1950s; the consolidation of Cinema Verite (Direct Cinema) in the early 1960s in America; and lastly but not least, the emergence of the South African Sophiatown Renaissance ( a literary and cultural movement) which was subsequently destroyed by the political forces of apartheid. On the Bowery (1954) inspired and gave form to the formation of the British Free Cinema, which included among others, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson; it was through this film that these film makers established contact and continuity with Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon, Grierson's Drifters and Industrial Britain, and other films of the 1930s. Come Back Africa (1959) was the mirror in which the Sophiatown Renaissance (it included some of the leading black South African writers of that generation, Can Themba, Lewis nkosi, Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Henry Nxumalo), in many ways similar to the American Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, saw reflected its own death at the hands of white political oppression and repression. On the Bowery and Good Times, Wonderful Times (1966) defined the critical forms of the American Cinema Verite, in which Pennebaker, Maysles', Cawston and others were to follow. In the short documentary films of the 1970s, Woodcutters of the Deep South (1973) being representtive though dealing with white and black workers in the American South, Rogosin attempted to formulate the iconographical structure of African-American culture, in the same way that Walker Evans had done in some of his great photography.
If it should appear as if Lionel Rogosin was the only outstanding American avant-garde film director, that would be misleading, for he was in fact part of the then emerging New American Film Movement which consisted of among many others, Jonas Mekas, Stanley Brakhage, Shirley Clark, Ricky Leacock. In a stimulating and contentious essay written for a West German film magazine, Filmkritik, Jonas Mekas, editor of the most avant-garde film review in America, Film Culture, argued that this new constellation of Underground avant-garde film makers should be situated within a context of particular political, cultural and historical coordinates. In this essay of 1961, "Rebellen Gegen Hollywood: Neubeginn im US Film", Mekas the following points: first, this new film movement sought, and did establish, cheaper methods of film production; secondly, it was part of a cultural movement which was accompanied in its path by the Theater 'Happenings' of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, as well as the movement of the Beat Generation, consisting of among many others, Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and last but not least, this new film movement was bathing in the aura created by Abstract Expressionism, perhaps the last great artistic movement in the West before the recent descent into the postmodern chaos; thirdly, that Lionel Rogosin and Company were not intellectuals, having no confidence and trust in film theory and film history, and hence, Mekas believes, they made better and authentic films than their predecessors; fourthly, that when this new generation of film makers had problems in having their films distributed, they solved this problem by buying film houses, as Rogosin did by buying the Bleecker Street Cinema at the Greenwich Village; fifthly, as a consequence of all this, this new independent film movement believed strongly in their emotions and little respect for film traditions and film conventions, despising all kinds of cliches, trusting strongly their intentions, intuitions and visions.8 Mekas believes that all these factors and processes made it possible for this pleiad of avant-garde and experimental film makers to discover new unexplored film territories. Though one may agree with practically all these points, it is incomprehensible how Mekas could seriously believe that his generation of film makers had no confidence in film theory and film history, when in fact, for example Lionel Rogosin had published in Mekas' Film Culture, a year earlier before the publication of Mekas' essay, an essay to which we referred to earlier, articulating a coherent theory of realism as well as theorising Rogosin's own self-understanding of his position in film history, stretching from the documentarism of Flaherty to the Neo-Realism of De Sica! Nonetheless, the editorial board of Filmkritik in a rare statement of editorial endorsement, thus confirming the importance that was attached to Mekas' essay in West German film circles, rightly states that ethics rather than aesthetics constituted the central and fundamental component of the New American Film movement.9 The films of Lionel Rogosin more than confirm this seminal observation.
Indeed, ethics and empathy are the principal philosophical constructs which govern the unity of all Lionel Rogosin's three major films: in On the Bowery, he sought to explore the nature of ethics in the sphere of social reality through the hopelessness and tragedy of alcoholism in New York City's Skid Row; while in Come Back Africa, he succeeded in indicating the strength and resiliency of ethics in the domain of politics in the context of resistance to the madness and tragedy of apartheid in Johannesburg and Sophiatown's black community; and lastly in Good Times, Wonderful Times, he exposed the weaknesses of ethics in the realm of history in preventing the outbreak and tragedy of war as is reflected in the intellectual lethargy of London's pseudo-intellectual and middle-class community. That these film texts are artistic documents of astonishing accomplishement more than justifies in considering Lionel Rogosin as one of the outstanding poets of wthics in the whole history of film.
The preparation for, and the filming of, On the Bowery, provides some insightful information as to the striving for ethics in Rogosin's filmic praxis. Fortunately, Mark Sufrin, collaborator on, and writer of the screenplay of, this film, has in an illuminating essay, "Filming on Skid Row", which appeared in the Sight and Sound issue of 1955/56, presented a narrative sketch of the practical methodological approach in the making of the film.10 According to Sufrin, the principal aim of the film was to capture the state of marginality, alienation and anomie of alcoholics within an individualised and dramatic structure. The intent was not to make a typification or symbolic representation of alcoholic life on Skid Row, but rather, "to extract a simple story" which would give "an essence of truth of the place". Hence the story-line On the Bowery was reconstructed from the actual life experiences of alcoholics on the Bowery. This necessitated on the part of Rogosin, Sufrin and Richard Bagley, the cameraman, their having to interact intensively with the marginalised people on Skid Row. Simultaneously, they undertook extensive research on the social psychology of Skid Row life at Yale University and consulted with medical and clinical specialists, including social workers. It was from the multiplicity of these converging processes that a narrative documentary script was written. The leading actors, or more appropriately, recreators, in On the Bowery, were chosen from the Skid Row social milieu itself.
In the main, Rogosin in his essay concurrs with Sufrin's interpretation of the reality of making On the Bowery, for he writes: "Making On the Bowery taught me a method of molding reality into a form that could touch the imagination of others. . . To capture reality spontaneously and to give it life, more is involved of course than simply casting people of the milieu. They must be allowed to be themselves, to express themselves in their own manner but in accordance with the abstractions and themes which you as the director must be able to see in them." The molding of reality into form: that is the essence of Rogosin's filmic praxis. In another context, in an interview with an East German film journal, Film, Wissenschaftliche Mitteilungen, on the occasion of presenting Good Times, Wonderful Times at the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival in 1966, Lionel Rogosin was compelled to articulate the philosophic and aesthetic foundations of molding reality into form. The theoretical construction of this transformation was formulated by him in the following manner: first, in order to establish the inner logic of the object, particularly an artistic object, the natural form of art should not be dislocated, for this naturalness causes form always to embody or take on particular instrumentation; secondly, hence form in the context of different themes and objects changes itself in the process of formation. Rogosin believes this to be the manner of the principle of art. Though the form of each of his three major films is always different, the style remains the same throughout. The livingness or beingness of art lies in the fact that different artistic materials signify different forms.11 With these somewhat abtruse formulations Rogosin was attempting to establish the credo of his aesthetics.
In the interview Rogosin states that a film should express a principle
idea and a fundamental theme. For him the principle idea behind Good Times,
Wonderful Times is the tragedy of war, hence it is an anti-war film; in
as much as the main idea behind Come Back Africa is against racism (racialism)
and the oppression of humanity; and in On the Bowery the main idea captured
there is against social and spiritual misery and poverty. All these films
show Lionel Rogosin to be a man of deep social conscience and his films
have wider implications. For instance, on the surface On the Bowery is
a poetic reportage on the hopeleness and degradation of life lived by
alcoholics in a particular segment of Manhattan (New York City), one cannot
fail to notice that it poses a wider question, namely, the nature of the
ethics of living today. It was perhaps this question that Basil Wright
was alluding to when in an enthusiastic review of this film, mentioned
earlier, compared Ray, the principal character of the film, with Ivan
Karamazov and Raskolnikov. In a paradoxical and strange way also, the
film is a celebration and lamentation of New York City, a love of New
York comparable to that found in the poetry of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane.
Crane writes of this great city:
Nathaniel Nakasa, the political and social historian of the social space
of Johannesburg, who tragically committed suicide at the age of 27 in
1965 in New York City, has captured in his collection of writings, The
World of Nat Nakasa, the moment when Lionel Rogosin in the late 1950s
was seeking and making the reality of black existence under South Africa's
political system of apartheid exciting and meaningful. In a social sketch,
"Between Two Worlds", the 'golden boy' writes:12
In the interview with the East German film journal, Rogosin states that Come Back Africa is a combative anti-racist film, which crosses false barriers in an attempt to forge the unity of humanity. But the film is much more than this, for it is one film made in a pre-democratic South Africa (i.e., in the Apartheid era), that possesses within its structure some of the components that will be of essential importance in forging a truly authentic national Soith African cinema in a post-revolutionary, and hopefully democratic, South Africa. Then, undoubtedly, Lionel Rogosin will be embraced as the god-father of that authentic cinema, as much as it will recognize in Lionel Ngakane its exiled father, however contentious that judgement unquestionably will be. Should the above claims on behalf of Rogosin and his film sound extravagant and unsupportable, one needs only reflect on the following factors which inhere in its structure: first, linguistically, an African language, specifically in this instance Zulu, is used in the film commensurate with its historical and cultural importance. Zulu and English are used interchangeably suiting the logic of circumstance within which the narration of the film is moving. That a predominant part of an authentic national South African cinema will have to be in the politically liberated African languages is determined by the logic of our history, momentarily and presently tragic. Secondly, the narration of Come Back Africa is predicated on the central forces and the conflictual processes of our national history, in that Zacharia, the main protagonist of the film, who is an agricultural worker, is uprooted and transformed into a worker by the forces of capital and its concomitant repressive political agents (this is beyond the Jimmy to Jo'burg utter nonsense in some of the literary writings of the 1930s and the 1940s).Rogosin in his film shows us the tragic consequences of splitting the family between the rural and the urban spheres. What is even more important, is that Come Back Africa reveals to us the historical fact that the migratory labour system is the fundamental and foundation stone of South African capitalism. That system persists to the present unabatedly. Thirdly, the film not only conveys the last moments of the then dying Sophiatown Renaissance, but in fact, it is itself that last snapshot of a great literary generation (Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Miriam Makeba and others) before it was scatterred into exile by the political repression following the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. The shebeen scene in the film makes it clear, why Nat Nakasa, in one of the pieces in the collection of his writings, has with every justification called the shebeen, 'our national institution'. Fourthly, the politics of Apartheid philosophy are exposed, their diabolical nature conveyed, in those scenes in which Zacharia works as a domestic servant to a white family. Other factors could be enumerated, but these suffice to indicate the historic importance of Come Back Africa in our cultural history.
If we have dwelt long on the ethics of representation of South African national and cultural history rather than on the aesthetics of presentation in this film, it is because the dialectics our present national history necessitate the historicism of the former rather than meditative poetics of the latter. Nonetheless, the visual poetics of the film are impressive, some of the scenes shot secretly can compare with the most astonishing in the history of documentary film.
Beyond the context of the developing political situation in South Africa today and its possible outcome in the near future, Come Back Africa has had its own particular impact on the international film community. In an essay of 1961, two years after the appearance of the film, Reinold E. Thiel in an essay, "Film in Afrika - Afrika im Film", surveying the African film scene of that year, emphasised that Come Back Africa should always be viewed in comparative to Cry The Beloved Country (based on the novel of the high priest of South African Liberalism, Alan Paton), released in 1951.13 The same point was raised four years later by Ulrich Gregor (the present co-director of the Berlin Film Festival), in a review essay on the occasion of the showing of Come Back Africa on West German television.14 The contrast between the two films, besides the evident difference in the talent of their directors, lies in the fact that while Cry The Beloved Country, directed by an Englishman, Zoltan Korda, was continuing a tradition and discourse of false representation of South African history began by the 1916 film, Die Voortrekkers/Winning A Continent, Come Back Africa was opening new frontiers in the interpretation of our political history, authentic history. Keyan Tomaselli, the leading authority on the history of the South African cinema, has analysed the ideological effects of the false representation of South African history apparent in Winning A Continent.15 It is perhaps the authentic representation of the contradictions and dilemmas of our national history that makes Come Back Africa the authentic film it is. Ulrich Gregor emphasised the authenticity of the film, commenting that it had few parallels in the history of documentary film.
One thing is certain, Come Back Africa is one of the highest points, if not the highest achievement, within the history of film production in South Africa. The achievements of this film are such that it has posed one great historical question, to which as yet there has been no response: what ought to be or should be the essential cultural components of an authentic South African national cinema? Perhaps we South Africans are living in the pre-history of understanding such a question
Whereas the two earlier films by Lionel Rogosin have been universally praised and acclaimed, Good Times, Wonderful Times, has met from many quarters studied indifference punctuated by negative appraisals. What accounts for this contrast in the evaluation of Rogosin's major ouevre? After all, this film is a fully realized anti-war film, very insistent on showing the horror of war. In the interview with the aforementioned East German film journal, Rogosin passionately articulates the philosophy which informs the structure, narrative process and the iconography of the film. Made in the context of the then unfolding Vietnam War in 1966 (i.e., American imperialist aggression in South-East Asia), and being interviewed in East Berlin, a divided city as one of the resultant consequences of the Second World War, Rogosin interestingly enough states that his film is not particularly an anti-Korean war film, or for that matter, specifically an anti-fascist film (i.e., anti-Second World War film). These series of disclaimers on the part of Rogosin are a prelude to a greater claim on behalf of Good Times, Wonderful Times: that it is an anti-militaristic and anti-war film beyond social and class systems.16 Disowning the designation that his position is that of a pacifist, which the interviewers were quick to categorise as such, he nonetheless calls for complete disarmament. He even states categorically, that under a process of complete disarmament, it would be easier or should be lighter for the people of South Africa to overthrow their oppressive and fascist regime; then it would be impossible to delay or halt the developing insurrection of oppressed South African peoples. Without necessarily responding to the specificities of Rogosin's approximations and formulations, it can be said that he does not sufficiently differentiate the historical causes of wars and their specific forms. In other words, though all wars should be condemned, as Rogosin passionately does in Good Times, Wonderful Times, it is wrong to equate all wars or the reasons for their outbreak, as he does. It is perhaps of its collapsing all categories together that on its first appearance on West German television, the film was negatively reviewed.17 As to its possible reception within the American context, for which it was principally intended, it is truly shocking that none of Lionel Rogosin's major films have ever been shown on American television.18
In the interview Rogosin states that his principal aim is to fight against the pessimistic philosophy according to which war is unavoidable and unpreventable, it is supposedly part of the natural order of humanity. This is indeed a noble aim. As to whether Good Times, Wonderful Times does attain this aim that war is preventable, is debatable. Since the film consists mainly of intercutting between original film material (from the First World War, the Second World War and the bombing of Hiroshima) and a group of English middle class intellectuals talking endlessly about their personal feelings about, and their personal experiences in, war, it is the dispicableness of this class, because of their intellectual shallowness displayed in the film, rather than the tragedy of war which remains in memory after seeing the film.
Nonetheless, it may perhaps turn out that the true historical significance
of Lionel Rogosin may only come to the fore in the context of a democratic
and post-revolutionary South Africa, when the presently awaited event
will make possible a profound reading of Come Back Africa and Good Times,
Wonderful Times. Then Rogosin will perhaps be placed in the pantheon of
1 Basil Wright, "On the Bowery", Sight and Sound, vol.26 no.2, Autumn