Lionel Rogosin, a political filmmaker whose cutting-edge documentaries received wide critical praise despite slight box office numbers, died on December 8, 2000, in Los Angeles, at age 76, from a heart attack.
The late John Cassavettes, himself no stranger to cutting-edge filmmaking, once called Rogosin “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” High praise, indeed, for a man whose initial career goals were in the technical field of engineering.
Rogosin grew up on Long Island, New York, and served in World War II as an engineer on a Navy minesweeper off the coast of Trinidad. After the war, he finished his course work in engineering at Yale, eventually graduating and finding quick work as a chemical engineer. Not wholly satisfied with that line of work, he switched gears, and investigated filmmaking. It was a wise choice.
His films, which all reflect a highly personal vision, included On the Bowery (1956), which showcased the harsh reality of life on New York’s skid row, and was nominated for an Academy Award while winning the grand prize for documentary film at the Venice Film Festival and a British Film Academy Award; Come Back, Africa (1960), which was decades ahead of its time, in its focus on the horrors of apartheid, and was named to Time magazine’s list of the top ten pictures of the year; Good Times, Wonderful Times (1968), an effective anti-war documentary, timely in its release during the Vietnam War; and mid-1970s films Black Roots, Black Fantasy, his racial injustice study Wood Cutters of the Deep South, and Arab Israeli Dialogue.
Rogosin was, at one time, owner of the Bleeker Street Cinema in New York’s Greenwich Village — this theatre was a showcase for experimental and avant-garde filmmakers and fans. He sold the theatre in the early 1970s, and it closed in 1990.
At the time of his death, Rogosin was working on an oral history of anti-apartheid revolutionaries in South Africa.
In an interview with the New York Times some years ago, Rogosin noted that his films were more influential around the world than in America.
“It’s funny, but internationally my films are well known,” he noted. “And even influential. Come Back, Africa, for example, has been shown all over Africa … and I’ve been told by African filmmakers that it influenced and started the whole cinema movement there. That’s rewarding, to know that you’ve influenced an entire continent’s movie making.”
Rogosin is survived by two sons, Daniel, of Los Angeles, CA., and Michael, of Algiers, France, as well as three grandchildren.
Funeral services for Lionel Rogosin were held on Tuesday, December 12, 2000, at the Hollywood Funeral Home Chapel, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA.