Come Back, Africa (Milestone Films, NR)

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The real star of the film is the documentary footage of locations never before seen by most White people.

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If you teach or work in a university, you’re probably used to the emails sent around each year detailing things that the latest crop of bright-eyed 18-year-olds have never experienced—from playing an eight-track tape to living in a world without the internet. Here’s one that was brought home to me recently, courtesy of Milestone’s release of a restored version of Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 film Come Back, Africa: they’ve never lived in a world where apartheid was the law in South Africa.

You can describe what apartheid was, of course, but to really understand what it meant to live under that system, you have to get beyond the intellectual. Rogosin’s film does just that—by combining a scripted story with some amazing on-location filming, it conveys a real sense of how crippling the apartheid system was for the vast majority of South Africans (i.e., those who were not White). It’s no surprise that Come Back, Africa was banned in South Africa, but it was a huge success elsewhere, winning the Pasinetti Award at the Venice Film Festival and playing to great acclaim in Europe and the United States.

As in Rogosin’s equally-amazing 1956 film On the Bowery, the story of Come Back, Africa serves mainly as a frame to support some eye-opening documentary footage. In Come Back, Africa, a young Zulu named Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi) leaves his village to seek work in the gold mines. After living in a miner’s hostel, he moves to a township and runs afoul of the pass laws, which regulated where Black South Africans could live and work (and frequently presented them with a catch-22: you can’t get a job without a pass, but you can’t get a pass without a job). Zachariah’s life spirals downwards as he drifts through a series of low-paid, low-prestige jobs, while his wife works as a live-in domestic servant (whom he is not allowed to visit).

It may seem odd to speak of a documentary using a scripted story, but it’s actually an old tradition whose greatest master was Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, Louisiana Story). As in Flaherty’s documentaries, the scripted story in Come Back, Africa is used to present a portrait of a way of life, in this case that of ordinary Blacks in living in South Africa under apartheid. The real star of the film is the documentary footage of locations never before seen by most White people, from the shanty-towns where whole families lived in small tin shacks to the shebeens (small unlicensed drinking clubs) that were a central aspect of social life.

Rogosin told the South African authorities he was making a movie about South African music, which gave him access to locations that would otherwise have been strictly off-limits. A side benefit is that he captured the vibrant cultural life of Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg, just before it was destroyed (Black residents were evicted in 1959 and the area was razed and then rebuilt as a white suburb). Miriam Makeba was introduced to the world in this film, as was gumboot dancing and the distinctive South Africa style of pennywhistle music.

Extras include an introduction by Martin Scorsese, a making-of documentary (64 min.), an interview with Rogosin (19 min.), the theatrical trailer, and the films Black Roots, directed by Rogosin (63 min.), Bitter Sweet Stories, directed by Michael Rogosin (27 min.), and Have You Seen Drum Recently?, directed by Jürgen Schadeburg (74 min.). | Sarah Boslaugh

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