In 1957, Lionel Rogosin–a genuine American independent filmmaker before the term was ever coined–traveled to South Africa to make a film exposing the conditions under which the oppressed black Africans live. He had just made is directorial debut with the critically acclaimed On the Bowery, a portrait of life on New York’s Skid Row, and was inspired to take on the daunting challenge of making a film in what Rogosin realized was in fact a police state, one that the rest of the world knew almost nothing about in 1957. He began work under the guise of producing a non-political film about the musical culture of the country (and there is, in fact, a wealth of local music in the film) while secretly meeting anti-apartheid activists and developing a loose script with the help of local writers, artists, and activists. Using non-actors and shooting clandestinely, he improvised from the outline. The result is a loose, sometimes arch drama that draws its power from the texture of the lives and the locations shown on screen.
The basic story follows the experience of Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi), an uneducated man from Zululand who comes to Johannesburg for work in the gold mines and then stays to find work in town. It’s a challenge from the outset in a bureaucracy designed to make life difficult for blacks trying to move to the city. The modern world is all quite new to him–even the radio is a foreign wonder–and he’s very much the country naïf in the big city, getting along with help from men who have already learned the system. He goes from job to job, from a servant in a middle-class apartment (he’s considered a “house boy,” emphasis on “boy,” a term used by the whites which is only slightly less offensive than “kaffir”) to working in a hotel, in a garage, and on a road crew. His wife comes to the city with their two children. While she looks for work, their preteen son learns the culture of street gangs and street musicians.