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Lionel Rogosin

January 22, 1924 - December 8, 2000

As an independent producer, director and distributor, Lionel Rogosin was one of the founders of the New American Cinema movement. This informal group of filmmakers, including Morris Engels and Sydney Meyers, sought to create a cinema free from the economic and structural shackles of Hollywood and to discard standard conventions of plot and structure. Inspired by Robert Flaherty and the Italian neo-realists and equipped with lighter, more portable cameras, sound recorders and lighting, these directors shot on the city streets and focused on real life. One filmmaker who was strongly influenced by this movement was maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, who said, “To tell the truth as you see it, incidentally, is not necessarily the truth. To tell the truth as someone else sees it is, to me, much more important and enlightening. Some documentaries are fantastic. Like Lionel Rogosin’s pictures, for instance; like On The Bowery. This is a guy who’s probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time, in my opinion.” A Newsweek critic called also called Rogosin “a man of profound humanism.”

Rogosin experienced fascism firsthand as a soldier in World War II and vowed that he would continue to fight against it whenever and wherever he saw the threat of it reemerging. He wrote, “This was the conviction that caused my anguish and indignation about apartheid in South Africa and racism in the United States.” Rogosin decided to make films that expressed his political activism — he exposed oppression before it became fashionable and his subject matter was groundbreaking. His unique filmic approach brought him acclaim, but his empathy for the downtrodden combined with a desire not to dramatize their plight, made it difficult to find financing for his film projects.

Born in New York, Lionel Rogosin (ro’ geh-sin) was the only child of Israel and Evelyn Vogedes Rogosin. His father, a poor Russian immigrant with little education, started a sweater factory in Brooklyn at age 18 and made his first million by the next year. Lionel grew up in the wealthy (and primarily non-Jewish) New York suburb of Port Washington, Long Island and was expected to join the family business. He went to Yale to study chemical engineering, but before graduating, he volunteered to serve in the Navy for two years during World War II.

Upon his return, he joined his father’s successful Beaunit Mills, by then the industry leader in producing rayon fabrics. During this time, Rogosin traveled to war-torn Eastern and Western Europe as well as Israel.

Rogosin quickly became president of the textile division but was unsatisfied with the work. Influenced at an early age by the film All Quiet on the Western Front as well as his experience in the war and later travels, he was convinced that he needed to take a more active role in society. “I got restless, so one day I wandered along the Bowery with a camera, and there you are… Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that.” He had seen the images of the Holocaust and terrible racism in his own country, and after a brief stint as an assistant on a short film by Roger Tilton about square dancing, he decided to confront these ills with a camera.

In 1954 Rogosin resigned from Beaunit Mills and invested his own money — an estimated $60,000 — in the production of On The Bowery. Although it received the Grand Prize for documentary at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award, the film also had detractors. Many mainstream critics could not see past the film’s rejection of Hollywood production values and actors. They considered the storyline weak (no formal plot), the cinematography gritty (scenes of real squalor and poverty) and the acting rough. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times described On the Bowery as “sordid and pitiful.” But others recognized The Little Fugitives and On the Bowery as signs of the emergence of a new cinematic art form. Interestingly enough, Rogosin claimed not to have seen an American film for many years prior to his making of On the Bowery. “I was isolated at that time… you have to understand that above all, I’ve been inspired, motivated by life and not by films.”

In 1956, Rogosin married Elinor Hart who, under her married name, became a well-known dance critic in the 1960s. With confidence based on the reception of On the Bowery, Rogosin decided to take a real chance. For several years he had considered making of a film protesting apartheid. Meeting the secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, and the South African writer Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country), he decided that this was something he had to do. It was an incredibly courageous act of filmmaking and defiance. Taking his young, pregnant wife with him (their eldest son Michael was born during the making of the film), Rogosin entered South Africa on a tourist visa.

The couple lived in the country for a year, making friends and important connections, while observing the government system of oppression. Even though film equipment had become more lightweight and portable, it was still impossible to film without the authorities discovering them. So they applied for a permit to film — on different occasions presenting their project as a travelogue to promote South African tourism or a documentary celebrating the music of the country. After many bureaucratic delays, hostility and the great danger of being discovered, authorization to film was granted and they quickly gathered together a cast and crew. The plot was written with the guidance of two young anti-apartheid Africans, Lewis Nkosi and William “Bloke” Modisane, who also appear in the film. Also appearing in the film was a very young, very beautiful singer, Miriam Makeba.

Taking its title from an African National Congress slogan, Come Back, Africa premiered at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, where it received the Critics Award and great acclaim, but it still faced some of the same criticisms that had faced On the Bowery.

Finding no attractive distribution deal for Come Back, Africa, Rogosin took a ten-year lease on the Renata Theater and spent $40,000 to renovate and convert it into a film theater. The re-named Bleecker Street Cinema became the place to exhibit art and political films for the next twenty-five years. (Rogosin sold the theater in 1974 to Sid Geffen.)

In September 1960, Rogosin became one of the twenty-five filmmakers who joined together as a “free and open organization” called the New American Cinema Group. At the time, he was busy preparing his next film — a protest against the horrors of war and a plea to promote peace. The film, three years in the making, became Good Times, Wonderful Times. Inspired by Joan Littlewood’s production of Oh What a Lovely War!, the film combined archival footage of 20th-century war, film of the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and an scenes from actual trendy London cocktail party. The conversation from the party reflected the apathy and hedonism of most of the people at the time. Good Times, Wonderful Times was a success on college campuses and the film was one of the first to oppose the Vietnam War and helped inspire the antiwar protest movement.

Rogosin did not complete another film until 1970. Rogosin initially considered Come Back, Africa as the first part of a trilogy that would include a parallel study of racism against blacks entitled Come Back, America and a final section on a newly independent country, such as India. However, with his money depleted, he produced instead a one-hour documentary, Black Roots, featuring five activists. Their sometimes horrifying, sometimes humorous stories about growing up in white America were played against images of young blacks filmed on the streets of Harlem and music by John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. After receiving mixed reviews once again, Rogosin went on to film Black Fantasy, featuring one of the activists from the previous film, musician Jim Collier. Based on Collier’s stream of consciousness monologue, Rogosin strove to create something equivalent to James Joyce’s Ulysses. His next film sought to complete his Come Back, America series with Woodcutters of the Deep South (1973). This film focused on black and white workers struggling to overcome their own racism to organize against the Gulf Coast pulp and paper industry. All three films stripped cinema pretense away to create a direct, immediate cinema of social protest.

Rogosin’s last film was Arab-Israeli Dialogue, made in 1974. Again, starting out with a more ambitious project, he instead created a spare 40-minute film of a dialogue between Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein and the Israeli journalist Amos Kenan. Shot in two afternoons and combined with footage that Rogosin had shot in Israel in 1953, the film is a meaningful plea for peace and understanding.

Rogosin spent the next sixteen years trying to develop new projects, including a musical feature based on Paul Gauguin’s autobiographical book on Tahiti, Noa Noa and a police movie written by John Briley, The Big Apple. Through it all, he remained devoted to a cinema of truth and meaning. After his death, he was buried in the Forever Hollywood Cemetery — an ironic end for one of cinema’s great independents.