Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 15, 2024 8:16 pm 
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A witty young African in America - till he's not

The actual date is 1968, the subject a Nigerian whose real name is Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam. Well educated and a man of incisive intelligence and wit, he had fled the civil war in Nigeria, where he had met the director several years earlier when the latter was there as a Peace Corps volunteer, an experience he chronicled in his first, 1966, film Give Me a Riddle, which also featured Okpokam.

Now Okpokam was teaching at San Francisco State, but in the short academy ratio black and white film, edited in the docu-fictional style vein of John Cassavetes' Shadows, Schickele rebrands him as a character called Gabriel, an African visitor in this country whose status is less certain: he is looking for work.

The film was meant to end with the outspoken Gabriel being arrested by authorities and deported. Reality moved faster. The film is barely over an hour because Okpokam himself was arrested, held in jail for four months, framed, tried, shunted around in California prisons for a year, and eventually deported. This is spelled out in a voiceover at the end of Bushman that explains why the film is cut short and Gabriel/Paul suddenly disappears from it. This is a tantalizing portrait of a uniquely perceptive cross-cultural black sensibility. It's also an choice example of late sixties indie filmmaking and captures something of the experimental mood of that era.

It's also confusing. This is a rather unique situation. The film as we have it is a bit fragmentary and meandering. Its focus is Gabriel with certain women he has relationships with and who relate to him in different ways; and on Gabriel delivering a monologue to the camera. One of the women is white, with her own prejudices. Another who's black challenges Paul as being "not reeally black" because of not knowing how to talk in the current hip black American way. (He's learning, but always maintaining a distance.)

Indeed the meat of the film is Okpokam's running monologue in multiple scenes about his life back home in the village, and some of the things he observes here, his brilliant sense of humor in encountering America and American black culture. An immediately engaging figure, he seems to find everything amusing. HIs point of view is unique.

It's hard to get your head around this film, but that's the challenge and the beauty of it. This character, who spans various cultures which he views with ironic perception, is the more memorable, in a way, because we don't' get enough of him. We're left hungry for more. We get just a glimmering of Okpokam's accent, his intelligence, and his humorous view of the world. He keeps talking about his village, but then we learn that he was a lecturer in Africa too, at the University of Nigeria.

This film is also a striking example of how illusory American "freedom" can be, especially if your color is black and your passport is foreign. One think s of the Langston Hughes' "Harlem": "What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun..." etc. Here we don't quite know what the dream was. We do know that it was not just deferred but crushed.

The film is on Criterion, and its restoration at L'Immagine ritrovata in Bologna, and more about that, about the director, and about coming showings of Bushman can be found in a Criterion essay here.

There were highly favorable reviews of Bushman at the time of its first appearance. In Film Comment recently Jessica Kiang described the film as "An example of cinema’s ability to encode little packages of explosive revelation into its fabric… just waiting for the next viewer to trigger another real-time detonation." This was just part of a survey article by Kiang about attending the recent Cinema Ritrovato festival in which Bushman was featured. We await more detailed reassessments of this interesting short film.

Bushman, 73 mins., is recorded as first showing at the Chicago Film Festival in Oct. 1971, and at New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center in New York in 1972. The newly restored version, sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and The Film Foundation, premiered in France at the Grand Lyon Film Festival Oct. 15, 2023. Shown Stateside on Jan. 15, 2024 at MoMA's To Save and Protect series, it will open in theaters in New York Feb. 2 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, marking the first time in decades that the film will be widely available. More cities will follow. Released by Kino Lorber and Milestone Film & Video.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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