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iffr: come back africa

A bit of an anomaly at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the 1959 fictionalized documentary 'Come Back Africa' (directed by independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin), which provides a rare glimpse of life in South-Africa under the apartheid regime. The film had long lain dormant in archives, but has recently been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and now tours world festivals.

'Come Back Africa' was made secretly, without permission from the authorities, under the pretense of shooting a music documentary. Collaborating with the popular Drum magazine, Rogosin used an all-amateur cast to portray the harsh and degrading life in the townships. Though the film follows a fictional storyline - the attempts of Zulu worker Zacharia to find a job in Johannesburg - this is embedded in a documentary depiction of the daily life of ordinary people, shot largely with hidden cameras.

Most of the film takes place in Sophiatown, at that time an epicenter of black culture and music in Johannesburg. Not long after the completion of the film, the township was completely demolished and replaced by a white suburb cynically called Triomf (Triumph).

Amid the institutionalized racism, economic exploitation, and the poverty and squalor of the townships, Rogosin finds a surprisingly vibrant street culture, with various dance and music performances, as well as a lively, if somewhat intoxicated debate on politics and religion. One of the film's highlights is a performance by Miriam Makeba in a clandestine bar.

Although it has its flaws (the acting is rather poor at times and the sound quality is horrible), 'Come Back Africa' is fascinating as a time capsule from a shaming era of world history. While the film long suggests hope, it ends on a particularly grim note - which no doubt only adds to its realism.

See also this 1960 review from Time magazine.

Update: Here's the scene with Miriam Makeba singing 'Into Yam'.

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