Thursday, August 8, 2013

In Search Of The Underdog: Lionel Rogosin's Cinematic Legacy Revisited (Interview With Michael Rogosin, Pt. 1: 5.22.13)

Here at Ramen Noodle Nation, we pride ourselves  as cultural curators of the obscure, the overlooked, and the unheard. -- be it art, film, literature, music.  In that respect, Lionel Rogosin (1924-2000) fits the bill perfectly, as my good friend, Chairman Ralph, most emphatically stresed during a series of email exchanges on the subject. 

Long before it became fashionable to pursue your own visions -- typically, with your own money -- Rogosin was doing exactly that, only 50-odd years ago. He cut a formidable cinematic figure through the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with his breakthrough, On The Bowery (1955), and kicking into high gear with his searing anti-apartheid critique, Come Back, Africa (1958); and Good Times, Wonderful Times (1965), which intercuts mindless chatter at a posh London cocktail party with war atrocity footage from around the globe.

Rogosin maintained his artistic momentum with Black Roots (1970), Black Fantasy (1972), and Woodcutters Of The Deep South (1973), which respectively examine African-American culture, interracial love, and tree cutters fighting to avoid corporate exploitation. Needless to say, these aren't the sorts of subjects that pry open corporate checkbooks aplenty. Rogosin struggled throughout his career to gain the kind of exposure and funding that later cinema-verite exponents like Michael Moore would leverage into, well...honest-to-goodness careers.

As a result, Rogosin never completed another film after his last feature, Arab-Israeli Dialogue (1974), and spent the remainder of his life attempting to complete various unrealized projects. At long last, however, there is the glimmer of a revival on the horizon...which his son, Michael Rogosin, is working to spearhead. With that in mind, we present Part I of this exclusive interview (which appears by the consent -- and permission -- of  --The Reckoner

CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): First of all – congratulations for reaching your (Kickstarter) goal (for Arab-Israeli Dialogue).

MICHAEL ROGOSIN (MR): Oh, thank you, yeah – I was quite happy about it.  I was rather worried in the middle [of the campaign], there – it was actually quite difficult to even get a minimum amount of money to do this documentary. But I did a lot of personal emailing, had personal meetings with some peace groups, and that led to some more (funding opportunities), and we managed.

After this is done, there'll be one more film which I didn't make a film about – and I wasn't planning to, because I thought it was the weakest of my father's films: Woodcutters Of The Deep South.  It's a film that I had actually some involvement in, as a kid, when we went to Alabama, or Georgia – the story of my father's later films is that he had no support whatsoever, so the budgets were actually nonexistent, I would say. 

But, by hook or by crook, he made the documentary – of course, his means of filming were [on] reduced 16 millimeter. I'd seen a bad VHS copy  – so I kind of forgot about it, saying, “OK, if I don't do one [a documentary] on one of the films, that's OK.  I'll kind of let that go.”

Then I got a call – actually, a few emails and calls – from a researcher at Alabama University, asking to see a copy of Woodcutters.  At first, I said, “No, it's a very bad copy.”  I finally managed to review it again, and my perspective has changed.  I saw the film in a completely new light, actually {laughs).  And, I realized, this film's subject was very interesting.

I sent him the copy, and he also told me that it was about a very unique situation – a cooperative of black and white woodcutters working together in the South, in the '70s.  It captured this particular historical period.  Of course, it was a subject nobody else would have really wanted to do, or approached, at that time...but he was so adamant about those kind of things.

: Yeah – of course, you'll be going through all that footage, and whatever notes your father made...because it sounds like he left a lot of documentation, a lot of writing behind.

: Yes – for all these films, I've had to go into the archives now.  I've started in 2000, can you believe that?  I've been making the films since about 2004 or '05 – actually, it's like a goldmine, fascinating.  My daily life is listening to my father on [film].   I also digitalized an enormous amount of documents, photos, and audio [material], so I have all this information to work with. I've been living with him since 2005, in this obsessive way, so when I do get to the end of this, it's going to be kind of a shock, I guess...

: But, at least, we'll have closed the circle, so to speak.

MR: Exactly.  And you start realizing, “Oh, my God, what have I got myself into?”  I had a very difficult period from 2002 to 2004, trying to get things restored. We did get one book published – which was quite a big thing – in South Africa, but besides that...we didn't get that much [done].  If I'm lucky, I'll be finished in a year and a half.  I'm always called to promote it [the work], so I don't mind talking about it – but, at that point, I hope that I won't be doing this all day long.

: When I stumbled across your father's work on TCM, I had a “road to Damascus” moment: “How come I missed this?  If I don't know it, then it's got to be obscure.”

: Yeah – well, I guess, because it's so hard to see.  When was the last time something was actually out there?  My father was not only a filmmaker, he was also a distributor.  His films were shown on the university circuit, but that's a long time ago – and never on American television. 

The only way you could have seen them would be some obscure VHS [copy], and you would have had a hard time finding copies, so this is a breakthrough.  We're starting to make some progress. TCM – it was fantastic that they did that [the retrospective airing], because no other American station would show those [films]. In 50 years, they didn't get shown on television, if you could believe that.

: Of course, that cuts to another issue in media, doesn't it – who decides what can be shown, or what people get access to [see]?

: Exactly.  My father wrote a lot about that...he would constantly talk about that.  There's other filmmakers of his generation – that considered themselves, not “blacklisted” – [but] “greylisted”. In other words, they were kind of put off the circuits, you know?  He would call it “Madison Avenue fascism,” 'cause they don't kill you – they make it so they can't see your work.  I guess On The Bowery, and the [other] films that he made, were considered threatening to the powers that be, or something...

: Well, the one that he seemed to get the most flack for was Good Times, Wonderful Times...

: Yeah, true, true.  People don't accept that film – it's the one where you have really divergent opinions.  A lot of young people actually think it's really modern, and interesting, and some people say, “Oh, it's cliché” – but other people are extremely affected by it, you know? 

: Well, when I watched the TCM stuff – that film, and Black Roots, were the ones that affected me most. 

: That's very interesting, but – the problem is, he didn't have any distribution.  Nobody knows those later films, like Black Roots.  They're so real, I feel the same way – and that's why I'm on a mission to get those films seen.  Your saying that is really rewarding, because I feel the same way as you do. Those films should be seen.

: Yeah, absolutely, because they were unlike anything that people were doing at the time, honestly.

: Basically – when I say, “zero budget,” I mean, zero budget.  Just enough to scrape through.  The sad thing is, he had a potential of doing a lot of other fantastic films – he had scripts, projects that never got done. That's the tragedy of American filmmakers who couldn't get any money, or zero support from public television.

: People get all misty-eyed, and say, “Wow, the '60s and the '70s, that was the golden age for films, and documentaries.” And I thought, “Well, if it was such as golden age, how come nobody got behind this guy?” 

: I'm not sure, exactly, what they were referring to.  If you were part of the clique of the [W]NET, they would get funding.  If not, there was no funding, I guarantee you. Over and over, in my father's writings, and his autobiography, he talks about it, and in his lectures. There was no support for independents.  There was no money for people like him.  They were struggling.  They were distributing on the college circuit, but there was nothing for them. That's all I can say..

In fact, my father was behind a court case against public television in the '70s, which is something that nobody knows – which had 200 filmmakers attacking 'NET for not supporting people. In other words, 'NET would give money to people working for their station, but not the independents, people of my father's generation – all these people had tremendous struggles to get their films done.  I can't see that [retrospective nostalgia] at all.

: Of course, in the '80s, that stuff only got worse, with all the mergers and consolidations that swept the Reagan era, which I'm sure you're familiar with.

: You mean, the beginning of cable television?  He didn't benefit from cable television, for whatever reason.  He went to England, just after that time – they had a certain period, also, where they were doing amazing things. And that didn't last more than 10 years, either, so...

: He didn't get the benefit of that, either?

No, he went there, hoping: “I'm going to go to England, and I'll to get support” – and when he arrived, it was ending (laughs).  I have to say that the later years for a lot of those artists, with no support, was quite sad, in a way – very frustrating.

CR: As you say, if nobody sees you – they don't even necessarily know that you're doing anything.  And, of course, little by little, the history starts to get rewritten, where even the people involved don't recognize it anymore.

CR: Absolutely.  Circling back to where we started, with Arab-Israeli – now that you've actually met your [campaign] goal, what's next? 

MR: Well, we have a copy that's not too bad, so we're not dependent on a restoration for it.  We did make a trip to Israel, for several reasons – among them, to follow up on Arab-Israeli – a few years ago.  I felt it was such an important subject, we had to get this done.  But we had some adventures that happened while we were making the [Arab-Israeli]  documentary.

We found that the film actually inspired a concrete effort between Palestinians and Israelis to work together, which is a journal – a monthly, in East Jerusalem – so we filmed there.  I filmed them watching the film, and reacting – it's elements like that, that are a little different.  It's taking my father's work, and building on it.

And then, we found something absolutely remarkable recently.  I found some Betacam tapes with no labels, or whatever – I managed to see a little bit of it, a few years ago. It took a long time to get it digitalized, just before we started this project – but I saw the interview, and it's absolutely mindblowing. 

It's between my father, and the Israeli [subject], 17 years after the original [film] – talking about the original film, and also, the Palestinian [subject] who died.  It's going to create a lot of havoc, or dispute, but he says strong, important things that I don't hear anywhere else.  So I felt desperate to get that edited, and out – it's a piece of my father's work that has never been seen at all.  That's tremendously exciting. We don't quite have the funds to do that...but we're not too far.

CR: Yeah, I imagine.  As you said, you never imagined you'd be getting yourself in for all this work, did you?

: It's very funny, because I never wanted to be a filmmaker. I said, “Oh, my God, that's something I do not want to do, sitting around in hotel rooms, trying to raise money” – because that's all I saw my farther doing.  I certainly didn't ever expect to make a film on that [his father's work]. So, who knows, at this point?

CR: So what was your original career aspiration, then, and how did that change, in the direction that you are [going] now?

MR: Well, I'm always in the artistic field.  I'm a painter, and I also had a musical phase.  I also restore houses, and I do all these other things to earn money.  So I'm quite good at restoring houses.  You don't realize your childhood, you know – where you're coming from, in some ways.  We had a lot of film culture, because we were always in my father's theater – so I don't know how I'll feel, as you say, when the end of the adventure comes.

The goal is to restore all the films, have a documentary on each one, and have them seen everywhere.  I have a feeling that Arab-Israeli will pull up the later films, so we can get them seen. Once you start something like this, you have no idea where you're going.  Either you do it, or you don't, so I have to go through with it. 

It's unfortunate that TCM didn't show my documentary on it [Black Roots], which actually is the first time I edited myself – but that will be on the Milestone version.  We have Jim Collier, who's in the film, who is still alive – I have some really fantastic interviews that we've done.  They were like that, because they were in such confidence with my father.  He really had a way of reaching something very real in cinema, so I definitely agree with that.

CR: Yeah.  It's remarkable – this [film] had the effect of, somebody started filming – and the people involved didn't realize it, but once they did, it didn't really matter.

Well, again, I can explain a fair amount about the aesthetics.  This is the kind of thing that you want to transmit to young filmmakers, actually.  He had actual methods of how to get people to say what you're hearing in front of the camera.  But the most important thing is that he loved all these people, and knew them very well. For instance, [with] On The Bowery, he was [spending] six months with the men.

In South Africa, it was the same kind of thing – months and months and months of going – and, in Black Roots, the same.  For example, Flo Kennedy, one of the people in the film – a black woman who graduated to become a lawyer – my father knew her for years, so he didn't just throw them all in a room, and start filming.  He was deeply involved with them. 

CR: What is the broader strategy to get wider recognition of your father's work?  I imagine that TCM showcase probably helped out quite a bit, didn't it?

MR: I think that helped – I'm hoping that Milestone will do another [release]; they've really done a fantastic job. Well, there's definitely a volume two in the works – with Come Back Africa, a documentary on that, and Black Roots, a documentary on that. 

So that's already going to be two Blu-Rays and DVDs of four films, four documentaries – that's significant, but not enough, because, as you say, the later films are important.  Once all the documentaries and films are done, I have to solve the restoration problem.  It'll be difficult, or we'll have to manage, somehow.

Once that's all done, it would be great if Milestone would do a boxed set of everything.  That would be the ideal goal – and this would go around in film festivals.  In Europe, my father's well-enough known [there]; once we have that body of work, we still have a lot of possibilities.  And then, I have to find a home for the archives. I also have my feature film, which either nobody will see, or somebody – I have no idea.  But that's my big obsession right now, to  finish that. 

CR: All of a sudden, we have these various tasks to do, and all these projects to get done.

MR: You get dragged into these things (laughs)...I would like to get back to my other things, at some point.  The great frustration is all the films he could have made,...but you could say that about a lot of things, for a lot of people. At least, you do something, and if you get something important done, that's all pretty good, I guess.

CR: What's even more interesting is that, throughout all this [difficulty], your father never stopped trying to realize his vision...

MR: That's true....and, since he was a distributor, you get all these problems of distribution.  The reason that he was a distributor was not only for his own films, but it was [also] to help all the independents.

And, of course, he had his distribution company, called Impact Films, which was really important in the college circuit, and really, the major thing that he did. Even [Martin Scorsese] told me – I said, “How important is the Bleecker Street Cinema, in terms of the film industry?”  He said, “As important as the films that were being made.” 

That's where these young filmmakers would go to get a film education. The Bleecker Street Cinema is an incredible story.  I think it's probably gonna be  [only] five minutes in my personal film, but that's something that someone should look into..


Come Back, Africa:
American Neorealism: Lionel Rogosin's Docs Reconsidered’s-docs-reconsidered

The AV Club:
On The Bowery: On The Bowery: The Films Of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 1,71199/

The Official Lionel Rogosin Website:

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