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Abstract:
Context of a 1959 African documentary/drama film in which the Baha'i Faith is discussed.
Notes:
Milestone Films released a restored version of Come Back, Africa on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012; see also comebackafrica.com. The relevant clip is at bahai-library.com/video/c/come_back_africa_clip.mp4 [6:10 minutes, 58 MB; thanks to S. Kolins].

"Come Back, Africa":
First commercial film mentioning the Bahá'í Faith

by Greg Watson

2013

1. Overview/background of film

On March 13, 2013, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) aired American television's premier of the recently restored docudrama (docufiction) “Come Back, Africa,” which appears to have been the first documentary or commercial film with mention of the Baha’i Faith (1959). The Faith is not simply mentioned in passing, but is presented briefly with some of its principles (like a miniature Fireside) as part of an intellectual dialogue among the central characters in the film.

Taking its name from the title of an African National Congress slogan, Come Back, Africa premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1960 where it won the Italian Critics Award. The film had a profound effect on African Cinema and remains of great historical and cultural importance as a document preserving the unique heritage of the townships in South Africa in the 1950s, during the height of the apartheid era. The social life of the township shown in the film is beautiful — a township that was totally destroyed (bulldozed subsequently) for white urban expansion, and the population herded elsewhere (even separating families); see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Come_Back,_Africa . It is not inconceivable that the motive was not solely for urban expansion, but to destroy an impoverished but economically-developing and socially-thriving black community — much as was the attempt when incendiary bombs were dropped and rifles fired from airplanes in 1921 on the Greenwood district of Tulsa Oklahoma (the wealthiest black community in the United States); see wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_race_riot (10,000 blacks were left homeless, as “the Black Wall Street” was burned to the ground, and perhaps as many as 300 were killed. The event might be more appropriately called a massacre, rather than a riot, with motivations to suppress the foothold that autonomous black businessmen were gaining in the state economy. Apparently no restitution or apology to survivors’ descendants was made until 2010, while history books have continuously suppressed the mere mention of the event.)

Hence the film is among the few records of what the South African township and its life were actually like — both its colorful social life, and what it was like to live under the cruel iron rule of the harsh apartheid government / police state in the 50’s. It also reflects the intellectual renaissance arising among the young black South Africans at the very time the film was made. The film may be classified as reportage, documentary, historical movie or political cinema, since it portrays real events and people. It is a mixture of documentary and fiction, adopting a style of neo-realism and inspired by the film artistry of Robert Flaherty. In 2007-08 the filmmaker’s son (Michael Rogosin) released an important 50 minute documentary An American in Sophiatown on how the film was made, and it too is being aired on TCM. (See imdb.com/title/tt1003258/; it is highly recommended, even if you can’t find the original film itself, and essential as an accompaniment to the film. It is interwoven with clips from the film.) See tcm.com/this-month/article.html?isPreview=&id=568367%7C570285&name=An-American-in-Sophiatown.

Brief discussion of the Bahá’í Faith

The film used no professional actors. Its actors were street people (literally pulled off the street), improvising lived experiences: they play their own lives or those of people like them. The lead role was played by a black South African villager who was essentially telling much of his own real life, after leaving the countryside. “A refugee in tattered shirts and blazers from the famine-stricken KwaZulu homeland in the nation's southeast, Zacharia comes to Johannesburg in desperate search of a job.” During the most intense philosophical discussion among the intellectual dissidents, basic tenets of the Bahá’í Faith are explained– at 1hr & 10min into the film. It's a long discussion — causes vs. symptoms, sources of discrimination, racial fault-lines, violent vs. non-violent resistance, religion vs. secular idealism. It was in that same improvised dialogue that one of the young men in the film predicted that the Africans would get the country back, and another racially-mixed black introduces the Bahá’í Faith to the discussion.

The film introduced to the world the singer and political activist Miriam Makeba, whom the filmmaker (Lionel Rogosin) later managed to get out of South Africa (via bribery) to Europe, where she later became the first black South African to become a celebrity outside of her country — partially through help from Harry Belafonte and peripherally from Marlon Brando. The “Bahá’í Religion”, presented by one of the protagonists (as part of the long intellectual dialogue), comes in right after she sings in the film. This Grammy Award winning artist is often referred to as Mama Afrika, and her talent can be viewed in numerous clips on YouTube, including an album with Belafonte. Don’t miss her extraordinary rich voice, singing her most famous song, in a period video (circa 1963) of “Pata Pata”, which was first released by Makeba in 1957, when she still lived in South Africa: see youtube.com.

It is not clear, to me, whether the American filmmaker (Rogosin), who was Jewish and traveled in Israel during the late 50’s, intended to introduce the Faith from the script, or if the topic spontaneously arose during the film’s illustration of the ideological discussions of the time, which the characters improvised themselves — meaning that the topic was brought into the film by the actors; quite possible since the Bahá’í movement was already alive in South Africa (since the early 1920s, when the Guardian sent 37 pioneers there — see next paragraph). These African “actors” even helped to write the script. However, if Rogosin introduced the topic himself, it may be that he learned about the Bahá’í Faith during his tenure in Israel, since he most likely visited Haifa after the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb was completed in 1953 — making it a landmark of the city. (Of course, being an American, he could have just as easily have heard about the Faith in Chicago or New York City. It would be interesting to know how the mention of the Faith got into the film.) Most likely, it was the actors themselves — real people depicting their own lives — who were expressing the impact that the Bahá'í Faith was having on the community at the time, although Rogosin surely knew of the Faith. It would also, thus, be interesting to learn of his knowledge and attitude towards the Faith.

Few knew that Shoghi Effendi and Ruhiyyih Khanum travelled throughout Southern Africa by train: "…the first of 37 pioneers to arrive (1920) during the Ten Year Plan were William (Bill), Marguerite and Michael Sears... Shoghi Effendi, … traveled through South Africa in 1929 and 1940. …Records show that the first Bahá'ís in South Africa were …in 1911 and …1912." (see news.bahai.org/story/270)

The film was made secretly inside South Africa (by lying to the apartheid government concerning what the film was about) within the actual environments, and under real conditions, and was released only one week before the Sharpeville massacre in 1960: wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharpeville_massacre. The film did not achieve a wide audience at the time, and is now resurfacing (after restoration) for the peoples of our time. In the words of the film’s maker, Lionel Rogosin, "I thought it would have world success, because I thought the world would be interested in what was going on in South Africa, but I miscalculated — in the sense of being naïve — and not realizing that middle class white people around the world (Europe and America) couldn't care less about blacks, whether they were being annihilated, enslaved or whatever. There was no audience".

So it is only now that the film’s importance is being realized. Ntongela Masilela, English Professor of World Literature (Pitzer College), stated: "We South Africans of my generation appreciate what Rogosin had done, because without ‘Come Back, Africa’ I would not have understood the South African Renaissance of the 1950's." Beyond the filmmaker’s own intentions, it is a reconstruction of memory and history for later generations. If they want to see how people actually lived under those conditions, at that time, they will have to go to films like "Come Back, Africa.” See pzacad.pitzer.edu/NAM/general/essays/nxumalo.htm and ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC36folder/ComeBackAfrica.html.

The “Sophiatown Renaissance,” which is cameoed in the film as the intellectual and artful movement in the city of venue, was similar to (and directly inspired by) the Harlem Renaissance, essentially authored by Bahá’í philosopher Alain Locke during the 1920s and early 30s (zenith 1924-29). Indeed, as stated by professor Ntongela Masilela, “Ezekiel Mphahlele's encounter with the Harlem Renaissance mediated one of the most crucial events of the 1950's and the 1960's in African intellectual history: namely, the forging and establishing of national literatures in South Africa and Nigeria in modern times”. Thus, as Alain Locke has been characterized as the “father”, “the mastermind”, and “the philosophical architect” — the acknowledged “Dean” — of the Harlem Renaissance (known as the “New Negro Movement” at the time), it is possible to conceive a direct (or indirect) influence of the Bahá’í Faith upon the intellectual renaissance of black South Africa. When you realize that the Harlem Renaissance inspired the Sophiatown Renaissance, you see another fulfillment of the prophecy of Abdu’l-Baha that the United States would lead other nations spiritually.

Members of the white underground movement to end apartheid, affiliated with black magazine called “The Drum” (which reported on township life in the 50’s & 60’s), actually performed as amateur characters in the film. Native writers Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane were enlisted to collaborate on the scenario. See:

    wikipedia.org/wiki/Drum_(South_African_magazine)
    pzacad.pitzer.edu/NAM/general/essays/nxumalo.htm
    planetbahai.org/cgi-bin/articles.pl?article=172 (details on the Bahá’í life of Locke)
    wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem_Renaissance (Alain Locke mentioned)
    wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Locke
and Alain Locke — Faith and Philosophy (Kalimat Press), a book by Christopher Buck, which traces the depth of Locke’s affiliation with the Bahá’í community, in candid fervor.

Although the airing of “Come Back, Africa” on Atlanta television seems to have ended for now (surely to return), parts of the United States may still be able to see it on TCM. You may see a three-minute clip of the film here: tcm.com. The complete film (1 hr. 23 min) may eventually be available online in locations such as this: yidio.com or other services (Amazon, Netflix) to view movies online. A word of warning: both the film and the documentary about the film end tragically (see synopsis of Africa and Sophiatown). The film was recently restored by Cineteca di Bologna and reportedly will soon be released for viewing in American theaters by Milestone Films. A book is available on the making of the film: amazon.com may also have the film on VHS tape.

An interesting aside

In an interview the filmmaker (Lionel Rogosin) made reference to the rise of apartheid being, in part, an outgrowth of Nazi ideology in Germany — an interesting comment from a Jew, who obviously referred to the nationalist and racist mindsets rather than an attempt to compare very different external manifestations of this evil thinking. (The Internet shows considerable discussion of the influence Nazi Germany had on apartheid. Quite visibly, white supremacists' groups continue to use the swastika symbol in South Africa, even as it is still used by such groups around the world today as a symbol of racial hatred.) The influence and synchronicity made me think of the collective consciousness humanity shares, and the unconscious influences our thoughts have on each other. Consider the following pilgrim’s note of Abdu’l-Baha’s comment on the "source of evil thoughts in the minds of those who do not wish to entertain them":

“They come from other minds: they are reflected. One should not become a mirror for them — to reflect them, neither should one try to control them for this is impossible: it only aggravates the difficulty, causing more to appear.

One should constantly turn the mirror of his heart squarely toward God so that the Light of the Sun of Truth may be reflected there.

This is the only cure for attacks of evil thoughts. The face of the mirror should be turned toward God and the back of the mirror toward the evil thoughts.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Daily Lessons Received at Akka, p. 35, 1979 ed. — LG p. 512)

And from His talk in Paris we see again the need to recognize the influence of other’s thoughts:
“I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love….” (Paris Talks, pp 29-30)

“Thoughts are a boundless sea, and the effects and varying conditions of existence are as the separate forms and individual limits of the waves…” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109)

The synchronicity of the Nazi influence on Apartheid beckons consideration of both conscious and unconscious influences. On the conscious side, we have a direct contagion of ideas (hence Bahá'u'lláh's warnings against fellowship with the ungodly, see Persian Hidden Words 3, 56, 58) and on the unconscious side, notions of psychic critical mass, “hundredth monkey” phenomena, and even the hypnotic of mob psychology, folie à plusieurs, etc. Parallel with these concepts and observations is a theory of formative causation expanded scientifically by Rupert Sheldrake, with precursors in the work of renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung: wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Sheldrake. A summary of Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation is found here in his own words: sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/morphic/formative.html.

Another fascinating, if not new-age reductionist and speculative, introduction to Sheldrake’s theory of morphogenic (or morphic) resonance can be found here: lifefieldtechnique.com/Morphogenic_Fields.html.

2. Trailer for 2012 Milestone re-release

3. Additional Links

    Alain Locke & the Bahá'í Faith:
    • http://bahai-library.com/locke_index
    • http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=13809/ (Includes facsimile of Tablet in which `Abdu'l-Bahá mentions the distinguished "Dr. Locke.")
    • http://bahai-library.com/buck_locke_faith_philosophy
    For Alain Locke, see his recently published writings:
    • http://bahai-library.com/buck_locke_article_essays
    • http://bahai-library.com/buck_fisher_locke_talks
    • http://www.amazon.com/Works-Alain-Locke-Collected-Writings/dp/0199795045
    Presentations on Alain Locke:
    • http://bahai-library.com/buck_locke_race_amity
    • http://bahai-library.com/buck_locke_salvation_democracy
    • http://bahai-library.com/buck_locke_race_leader
    Film Clips & Audio: Author’s websites:
    • http://GW.homestead.com
    • http://bahaifaith.homestead.com/BahaiPositionStatements.htm
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