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Sunday, 20 May 2012 00:00

'Come Back, Africa' powerfully presents 1959 apartheid

blog.md-filmfest.com blog.md-filmfest.com
Written by Diane Carson
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As an historical record, the recently restored 1959 film Come Back, Africa is stunning. Secretly made to reflect the truth about South Africa’s apartheid, it follows black African Zachariah. Compelled by famine and recruited from his Zululand home by unscrupulous men, he becomes enmeshed in the racist system pervasive throughout South Africa.

At first working in the mines, Zach drifts from one job to another, always facing the laws that require him to have a permit to work and to rent a room or a home. Zach is fired because an employer is angry or it’s easier than dealing with a crazy white hotel resident or on a whim. Zach has no recourse. Through Zach’s encounters, life in South Africa for black Africans becomes increasingly oppressive and brutal.

He does find support and camaraderie with friends at a shebeen where they gather and drink, also illegal. They talk about art, religion, the nature of liberals, and reasons for prejudice. Music provides pleasure, especially when Miriam Makeba gloriously sings two songs, a far cry from the piercing alarm that announces daybreak when men and women exit train stations, hurrying to work in Johannesburg. Those scenes are exceptionally striking.

American producer/director Lionel Rogosin surreptitiously and courageously made the film. He lied South African authorities about what he was shooting—a travelogue, a documentary about gold mining, etc. For many scenes he could have been arrested. Several whites who helped him shoot the film spent time in jail; others fled.

After Jackie Robinson saw Come Back, Africa in 1960, he wrote an editorial for the New York Post praising it. He noted that Rogosin hoped the nonprofessional acting would convey the truth, the actual circumstances. Indeed, the performances feel sometimes a bit awkward but always honest. Similarly, the black-and-white film is technically serviceable but never flashy, relying on long shots interspersed with medium shots to convey emotion.

The title comes from the African National Congress slogan translated as Come Back, Africa. In English and Afrikaans with English subtitles. The St. Louis premiere of the new 35 mm restoration print of Come Back, Africa will screen at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 25th through Monday, May 28th. For information and the current schedule, you may call 314-968-7487 or go to the web at: Webster.edu/filmseries.

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