As underdogs go, Lionel Rogosin (1924-2000) ranks among American filmmaking's most overlooked figures. Long before it became common for indie filmmakers to work outside of the established system, Rogosin took small crews on shoestring budgets to create films that raised questions about the issues that mattered to him – from urban poverty (On The Bowery: 1957), to apartheid (Come Back, Africa: 1959), the horrors of of war (Good Times, Wonderful Times: 1965), and the Middle East conflict (Arab Israeli Dialogue: 1974). No subject was off-limits.
Rogosin also created the Bleecker Street Cinema, in New York, and Impact Films, which provided some of the first major outlets for indie filmmakers to show their work. These achievements took place against a continual backdrop of shoestring budgets, and lack of mainstream recognition – two factors that prevented him from completing or releasing another film after Arab Israeli Dialogue, though he never stopped trying during the last third of his life.
Michael Rogosin has worked to address those imbalances since his father's death. Now living in France, Michael has pushed to restore the 10 films that his father made, and completed an accompanying documentary on each one, to put them in context. (For further background on those ventures, check out the interview links below.)
He's launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish the editing of Working Together, which is intended as the final documentary – and also, a companion piece to Woodcutters Of The Deep South (1973), a film that chronicles poor black and white workers' efforts to unite against paper companies exploiting their labor.
When he began working on the project, Michael originally saw Woodcutters as his father's weakest film – but changed his mind, after seeing an upgraded version released by Milestone Films (which has overseen other reissues of the Rogosin film catalog). “In reality, it's a very, very interesting film, very different from all the other ones,” Michael observes. “And the subject was so amazing.” With the restoration efforts now on hold (“We can just say there's ongoing discussions with partners, and we don't have a schedule yet”), he's focusing on Working Together's completion.
Woodcutters also completes a trio of films that Lionel Rogosin used to probe the black experience in America – including Black Roots (1970), and Black Fantasy (1972). Fittingly, Lionel Rogosin traveled to the Deep South to begin work on Woodcutters – after the Reverend Francis Walter, having seen Come Back, Africa, asked if he wanted to documenting the workers' struggles.
“That's the amazing thing about my father's films,” Michael suggests. “Fifty years later, they're all extremely relevant. And the questions (that he raises) – the thing is, they're not asked in an obvious way. But it's the whole subject of the film that brings up, provokes all those questions.” With those thoughts in mind, Michael called to discuss the story behind his latest film, his efforts to keep his father's legacy alive, and where he sees his own artistic development heading.
MICHAEL ROGOSIN: THE INTERVIEW (3/20/16) CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): So tell me how this latest project started.
MICHAEL ROGOSIN (MR): I financed the trip to the (United) States last spring. Obviously, I have to learn about the film, and try to find the people who are still alive, to ge firsthand witness of the film. We got involved in a very complicated trip, but we started doing the Martin Luther King bus ride (Freedom Ride) re-enactment with one of the people who was a figure in the (original) film: Bob Zellner.
Then we went off with him, and revisited, tried to trace things. But since we don't have a lot of staff, I have to arrange all this all myself – and some things go wrong, and some things don't. So it's like, up till the last minute, tension-full if people show up or not.
With the documentaries, you really don't know exactly what's gonna happen, or what you're gonna discover. We don't know what happened to that (woodcutters) movement afterwards, so we found all that out. And it brought up a lot of questions about, what happened to the civil rights movement? So, before we knew it, we thought, we may have a film that went way beyond the original subject. This one I'm not editing myself. That's why I need some funds – we need to do more sound and color correction. That's one of the aspects that you have difficulty with on a little budget.
CR: So you're going to hire somebody for that job, then.
MR: We're very, very small budget – very low fees for everybody. I'm trying to arrange $5,500 for like, a 60- to 90-minute film, which is ridiculous. We have to do it on a shoestring, 'cause unfortunately, nobody ever pays very much – or anything, really, even the distributor.
Basically, people just take the material, and we can't be too difficult about that, if we want them to get seen. Who knows what'll happen later on? But to get them done, basically, everybody works on them for free. But I still need some basic costs, for technical things.
CR: And that's true of a lot of independent projects, isn't it – because it's not the flavor of the moment, shall we say.
MR: Yeah, I mean, these aren't commercial subjects. Who knows how it'll develop? I'm still hoping for the big (Lionel Rogosin) retrospective, and all that – where we can get a lot of people coming to see the films. And also, I must say, these last two films are so contemporary, even 50 years later – (like) the Arab-Israeli film, which I basically have finished now. And that's a 90-minute film that's pretty explosive, because the stuff coming out in that (project) was gonna be very thought-provoking.
And then, this film here, which is talking about what happened to the civil rights movement. We're talking about FBI infiltration, what happened. We may even end up getting into parts of the King assassination. We're getting into all these little subjects, and keeping the story going – so it's quite a lot of work, and it's gonna be a very big job for editing.
CR: Yeah, indeed – that's what made me reach out to you in the first place, because I had never heard of your father till they showed some of those films on TCM one night. And I was transfixed: “Wow, how come this guy was not more widely heard of?”
MR: Yeah, exactly. It has to do with all the subjects – I mean, look, even like this (film). In 1972, he's talking about black and white together working as woodcutters, and all that implied. Basically, poor people fighting the system, because they were being exploited completely by the companies, and all – I mean, it's not exactly commercial material (laughs), and almost blacklisted, or (as) my father said, “graylisted.”
Unfortunately, things have not moved forward – it's gotten worse. I have to tell you, I was pretty scared last time – we were in Alabama, and Mississippi, and Georgia, filming. It was pretty scary. I'm not running back there (laughs).
CR: So you still felt some of the vibes that they felt 40 years ago?
MR: Yeah. I mean, it would have been very different to not have been there. I mean, we went to the Civil Rights Museum, in Birmingham: one class goes in, only white students. Another class comes out, only black. It was so weird, and here it was, the Civil Rights Museum. Oh, my God, what's going on here?
The group discussions in this re-enactment of the bus ride (also known as the “Freedom Ride,” which Martin Luther King organized), we weren't sure we could get into the film – there's some pretty powerful stuff there. And then, to pull it all together, it's never easy. It's a big job. But I've managed this far, I think I'm pretty excited. I made this test edit – I think I'm looking at an hour-long film.
CR: Actually, when I first read the description of your film, the first thing I thought was: “Oh, well, look at the debate that's happening in the campaign, with Bernie Sanders talking about massive inequality.”
MR: Exactly. That's what's amazing to me about this, is that it's so contemporary to what's happening. In fact, I'll try to do a mailing saying, “If you're concerned with the (U.S. Presidential) election, all these issues, this is a film that's gonna be explaining a lot of that.” So it's kind of scary (laughs). It's pretty crazy doing a film on something like that, and having it be such an explosive thing 50 years later.
CR: Indeed. So, did you find any of the woodcutters from the original film?
MR: The woodcutters? No, we didn't find them. It's extremely difficult. Most of them have died, basically. They lived very short lives. We found out what happened to the whole movement, which basically disappeared, because of technology – if you can believe that – and then about the characters. So we have some great stories from Bob, who's really a very important member of the civil rights movement. And he brought in some other people.
CR: And I take it, Bob was involved in all this – and interacted with a lot of these folks, as well.
MR: Yes. There were people who were organizing there. Yes, he was an important character. In the film, Bob describes his whole experience of civil rights. He goes way back to the very, very early days in the '60s, the student movements, and all that, and his father was in the Ku Klux Klan....so he's got a whole gamut of history.
I didn't know how much of the civil rights story we would be able to tell through the film. We'll have use to more photos than footage. I have a little bit from Good Times, but that's the one concern. This is not really enough money (for a documentary), so that can be expensive very quickly. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
CR: So, assuming we reach the goal, what kind of timetable are we looking at for the actual completion and post-production?
MR: Well, I was thinking about the beginning of next year as a significant cut. Sometimes, like with Arab-Israeli, I've had it basically finished for quite awhile here, but since we don't have an exact (release date), I keep refining it. So it's possible I have a basic film, and keep refining it until the actual release date – but I'll be able to show it no later than next Christmas, I think.
CR: Of course, all that depends on reaching the goal.
MR: Yeah. So, we'll keep pushing. We're not doing too badly. I mean, I think people realize, even if they're giving $5 or $10....even if we had 500 or 100 or 200 people giving $10, that's already a big help. Last time, Milestone came in at the end, and gave me some more...so when people see that you're almost there, hopefully (the campaign will succeed).
CR: What's next for you, since this (last documentary) is going to be the completion of that particular cycle?
MR: Well, there are two things. One is trying to settle the restoration thing. I'll be spending less time once the partners are working on it – so that we can do the big (Rogosin film) retrospective, and getting the right partners (for that project). That would be a goal, to have a complete set of everything, and do the retrospective with major institutions. That, I think, is pretty sure – because they're all interested already.
I've talked to people at the Cinematheque in France, and all that. The guy had an interesting point of view – I talked through some all these great possibilities. I have this great photography collection of mine, pictures from On The Bowery, and South Africa...and there was this question of trying to do a book, or gallery shows, and stuff like that. But his advice was to put it all together in one serious package, one time, to have it all come out. So that's the goal to be working on, once this film is done.
And then, I really need to be liberated from all this (laughs), because I wanna finish my...the long series, I'm already at three hours. It's a crazy film, a crazy, funny documentary. Whether anyone'll watch it, I don't know. But I haven't been able to work on it. That I have to edit myself, 'cause it's just too personal. So I have to get back to that.
CR: So how many more years of your life have you got, Michael? Because there's probably a few that'll pass before you get all this stuff done.
MR: Well, I'm hoping I don't have to do it as full-time once we get this documentary done. I'm trying to start doing other things. This spring, I'm getting back to my painting, because I figured if I don't start now...I keep thinking, I'm gonna finish all this, who knows how long it's gonna take? But realistically, since I work pretty quickly...I mean, I've made, I don't how many films now, like 12, if you saw them. It's this long film which is so hard to edit, 'cause it's such a mixture of everything.
My goal was try to finish all of this in, let's say, a year and a half, all the editing. Once the films are done, work on the distribution thing. But that's not all my time. Hopefully, we'll have partners. Otherwise, I can't manage.
CR: Otherwise, it's not realistic, right?
MR: Right. And, I mean, Milestone is definitely completely behind us, and they're fantastic. So we're lucky, and I think they pretty much will commit – they have basically committed to going to the end of the project.
But realistically, I mean, I'm getting up there (laughs), so I don't wanna spend the next 10 years working on this full-time. Realistically, if I work hard enough, and we manage to do this (Working Together film) for this budget here....I think, in two years, I can reasonably say that the Lionel Rogosin film cycle, my end of it, should be finished within next Christmas. And I'll be working on the other edits at the same time. So I'd say, in two years, to really finish everything, and have it all come out.
CR: That's not bad.
MR: No, it's not too bad. I did start this in 2000, though (laughs). So, from my point of view, this is getting (laughs)....I mean, the other choice is just give up my life completely and say, “Okay, I'm gonna be looking at the archives until the day I die.” Which is tempting.
For instance, my father was responsible for bringing a lot of the Cezch New Wave filmmakers to America, to Bleecker Street (Cinema), and Impact Films. Those are all the things in the long film that I'm doing – all these things that nobody knows about, these amazing stories.
CR: So there's a lot of that behind the scenes kind of stuff that hasn't been brought out.
MR: Yeah, and it's really major stuff to me. That's why I say, what is fascinating to kind of study, or learn about, is that – but also, the distribution aspects of the Bleecker Street Cinema, which was enormous for all these people, like (Martin) Scorsese. Everybody went there to get their education, DePalma, and all.
By the way, I have footage of Brian DePalma filming with Robert DeNiro in the '60s, outside the cinema there. It's amazing. I was lucky to get that. So I'm just saying, between that – and the distribution, and the stuff they were bringing to America, it's just an amazing story. They brought the Warhol films to England – it just goes on and on and on.
CR: These are grass roots groundbreaking things that paved the way for the stuff that everybody takes for granted now.
MR: Yes, exactly. The one thing where they really had a financially successful (project), but my father's partner was basically a crook (laughs) – they had a distribution company in England. They were the ones who brought over all the Warhol films, and that was pretty successful financially.
Unfortunately, it didn't get back into running the rest (of the business), and I didn't know what happened to that. But they got those films seen, and that's really interesting. It's kind of a motivating (factor). It's so fascinating, that it keeps you going.
LINKS TO GO
Kickstarter Campaign For Working Together:
Lionel Rogosin (Official Website):
Michael Rogosin Interview (5.22.13),
Ramen Noodle Nation (Part I):
Michael Rogosin Interview (5.22.13),
Ramen Noodle Nation (Part II):