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American in Sophiatown, An

American in Sophiatown, An(2007)


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The son of a Russian immigrant turned industrialist, Lionel Rogosin saw the world while serving aboard a Navy minesweeper off the coast of Trinidad during World War II. Touring the war-ravaged globe in peacetime, Rogosin was disheartened to see vestiges of fascism, and nowhere more flagrantly than in segregated South Africa. Returning stateside and armed with a degree in chemical engineering from Yale, Rogosin went to work for his father's synthetics company, swiftly rising to the position of president of the textile division. Finding himself dissatisfied with the work, he was drawn instead to the possibilities of political activism through the medium of cinema. With a Bolex camera, Rogosin began to prowl Manhattan's Bowery, recording what amounted to Third World conditions within the heart of the greatest city in the world. After serving a brief apprenticeship with combat cameraman turned documentary filmmaker Roger Tilton, Rogosin invested $60,000 of his own money to shoot On the Bowery (1956). Shot documentary-style, on location and using non-professional actors, On the Bowery was branded "sordid and pitiful" by The New York Times but was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and was given the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Rogosin would find himself fronting the New American Cinema Movement, alongside such documentarians as Robert Frank and D. A. Pennebaker, and such experimental narrative filmmakers as Morris Engel and John Cassavetes, who praised him as "probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." Having never forgotten the cruelty of South Africa's apartheid system, Rogosin aimed his camera at the Dark Continent, where he traveled alongside his pregnant wife Elinor Hart (later a renowned dance critic) for over a year. To obtain the proper filming permits, Rogosin claimed he was making a travelogue to encourage tourism in Africa. When Rogosin and Hart ported their cameras into the shanty towns into which black Africans were being shunted in order to encourage the development of all-white neighborhoods, the filmmakers claimed they were making a documentary about African music. In reality, Rogosin was exposing the horrors of life for blacks under apartheid, relying on locals Lewis Nkosi and William "Bloke" Modisan to particularize the plot, and featuring a young Johannesburg singer named Miriam Makeba as the embodiment of the indomitable African spirit.

Produced by Rogosin's sons Daniel and Michael, Earl Lloyd Ross' An American in Sophiatown (2007) chronicles Rogosin's efforts to bring to light the inequities of apartheid and celebrate the humanity of its victims and survivors. Taking its title from an African National Congress slogan, Come Back, Africa (1959) attracted no distributers, forcing Rogosin to lease a Greenwich Village playhouse for exhibition and to spend $40,000 on renovations to what he would call The Bleecker Street Cinema. Come Back, Africa found favor with the critics, was hailed by Time as "a timely and remarkable piece of cinema journalism," and was included in the 1960 Venice Film Festival, to which Rogosin was able to invite Miriam Makeba via well-placed bribes offered to the South African government. Makeba's success as a singer and international chart-topper (with the 1959 single "Pata Pata") eclipsed that of Rogosin, who struggled to realize funding for his later works (whose subjects ranged from the Vietnam War to Arab-Israeli relations) and died in 2000, a quarter century beyond his final completed project but eight years past the official renunciation of apartheid in South Africa in 1992. Four years earlier, Come Back, Africa received its belated African premiere, after having been banned for thirty years.

It's anyone's guess how amused Lionel Rogosin might be today by the irony that a straight-up documentary, An American in Sophiatown, was made to turn attention back to Come Back, Africa, which he realized by rejecting conventional notions of narrative and documentary cinema. Inspired by Robert J. Flaherty and Vittorio de Sica, Rogosin's body of work - and Come Back, Africa in particular - set a precedent in American independent filmmaking, paving the way for such quasi-documentary works as Shirley Clarke's The Connection (1962) and Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles (1961). Restored in 2005 and released to DVD under the auspices of Milestone Films, and its cause taken up in 2007 by An American in Sophiatown, Come Back, Africa stands poised for the attention, reassessment and recognition it so richly deserves.

By Richard Harland Smith

The Official Lionel Rogosin Website,
Lionel Rogosin obituary, The Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2000
Lionel Rogosin obituary, Newsday, December 12, 2000
Interview with Michael Rogosin, Harry Belafonte, and Robert Downey, Sr., by Leonard Lopate, The Leonard Lopate Show, January 27, 2012
"Come Back, Africa and South African Film History" by Ntongela Masilela, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media (No. 36, May 1991)

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