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Lionel Rogosin
Remind Me

Lionel Rogosin Profile

Lionel Rogosin was a pioneer of docudrama, a filmmaker with a passion for social progress, an American thinker committed to global understanding, and an industry outsider seeking new ways of producing, distributing, and exhibiting movies. He was undervalued in his lifetime and remains so today, but his contributions to American cinema were important and unique, and in recent years his films have started getting some of the attention they richly deserve.

Rogosin grew up on Long Island and studied chemical engineering before entering the textile industry, where his Soviet-immigrant father had prospered. He left the business world because he wanted to participate in public conversations about international issues like apartheid in South Africa and pacifism in the nuclear age. In the early 1960s he bought a theater in downtown Manhattan and turned it into the celebrated Bleecker Street Cinema, showing his own 1959 movie Come Back, Africa as its first attraction.

Convinced that American film could thrive outside the money-driven Hollywood studios, Rogosin joined with Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, Rudy Burckhardt, and other mavericks to form the New American Cinema Group, an organization of experimental filmmakers. So large were the obstacles they faced that despite his remarkable energy and organizational skills, Rogosin managed to complete only ten shorts and features during his career, all made between 1957 and 1974.

Although he wasn't a prolific filmmaker, Rogosin was a dedicated and respected one. The great producer-director Basil Wright, a legendary figure in British cinema, saw reflections of Fyodor Dostoevsky's mighty novels in Rogosin's first film, On the Bowery (1956), a fiction-documentary hybrid about New York's notorious skid row. Martin Scorsese, who grew up near the Bowery in Little Italy, also praised Rogosin's depiction, calling it a completely truthful rendering of what he had seen with his own eyes, both on the street and from the windows of his family's apartment. Scorsese also applauded Rogosin's second feature, Come Back, Africa, as a work of "terrible beauty," and John Cassavetes said that Rogosin was "probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time." These are glowing words from filmmakers who recognized that Rogosin was fully as gifted, if considerably less famous, than themselves.

Rogosin decided to make his first movie about the Bowery because the place embodied the kind of social problem - known about everywhere yet ignored by public-policy makers - that he wanted to expose and explore. Named after its most important street, which is the oldest roadway in Manhattan, this district had flourished in colonial times but then gone badly downhill. By the time Rogosin arrived there it was a full-fledged slum, inhabited mostly by "Bowery bums" who staggered down its sidewalks and slept through alcoholic stupors in its alleys. Spending time with residents, transients, and drifters in the area's streets and saloons, Rogosin became intimately acquainted with local moods and personalities; he also got connected with a writer and a cinematographer who shared his aspiration to make movies that could change society for the better. Together they set about erasing the boundaries between fiction and documentary, basing their story on the lives of the people they'd met and then recruiting those people to play characters in the film.

They shot the picture over three months in 1955, etching an unsentimental portrait of a handsome young worker named Ray (Ray Salyer) who lands in the Bowery and sets about satisfying his need for alcohol. The other main character is a wino named Gorman (Gorman Hendricks) who helps Ray sell his clothing after his cash has disappeared, then steals Ray's remaining possessions and leaves him to fend for himself. Like the film's other performers, the actors playing Ray and Gorman were denizens of the Bowery with experiences like those of the characters they played; some scenes were staged, but everything was shot on location. Unlike most documentary filmmakers today, Rogosin felt that trying to capture something as big and complicated as a community in a completely nonfictional film could produce only a stale and limited version of reality. Yet while it isn't a "pure" nonfiction production like those of, say, Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, On the Bowery was honored by the British Academy Awards and the Venice Film Festival as best documentary, and it was nominated for the Academy Award in that category.

Rogosin visited a different kind of depressed community in his next feature, Come Back, Africa. This time the filming was done with hidden cameras and stealthy tactics in Sophiatown, a nonwhite ghetto near Johannesburg, the most populous city in South Africa, which was then ruled by the infamous apartheid system of legally enforced racial oppression. Sophiatown was being demolished by the South African government at the time, as part of a rebuilding project that subjected the black, mixed-race, Chinese, and Indian inhabitants to even more misery than usual. Rogosin went there and conferred with local artists and intellectuals, soliciting ideas for the screenplay and assembling a racially diverse cast.

The finished film centers on a Zulu worker named Zachariah (Zachariah Mgabi) who comes to the gold mines outside Johannesburg looking for work. Later he moves to the city and gets arrested for violating the "pass laws," and finally returns home to find that his wife, Vinah (Vinah Makeba), has been killed by a black hoodlum. The film ends with a heartrending cry of rage over the incessant struggle black South Africans must go through under apartheid, which assaults them with contempt and hatred every day of their lives.

Come Back, Africa and On the Bowery are generally regarded as Rogosin's best pictures, but others are worthwhile as well. The hour-long Black Roots is a lively 1970 documentary about African-American blues and folk music. Out, a 1957 short written by the renowned author and journalist John Hersey, was sponsored by the United Nations Film Board, which asked Rogosin to publicize the barriers faced by Hungarians seeking refuge in Austria after the Hungarian Revolution, which had been stamped out by the Soviet Union a year earlier. Good Times, Wonderful Times, an antiwar feature completed in 1966, contrasts a pretentious cocktail party (partly staged, partly real) with horrific images of modern combat. This film does for warfare what On the Bowery does for alcoholism and Come Back, Africa does for racism, sensitively diagnosing a seemingly intractable disease of the human spirit.

Rogosin's period of active filmmaking ended with the forty-minute documentary Arab Israeli Dialogue in 1974, more than twenty-five years before his death. What his body of work lacks in extensiveness, however, it more than compensates for with its quality, ingenuity, and unshakeable commitment to cinema as a force for good and an engine of social change. At once a sociologist, an ethnographer, and an artist, Rogosin was a unique commentator and invaluable observer of the world we all share.

by David Sterritt