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Bushman Review: Vivid Real-Time Tale of a Nigerian’s Life in 70s America
Hidden greatness … a still from Bushman, with Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam as Gabriel and Elaine Featherstone as Alma. Photograph: Publicity image

A unique 1971 work by US musician and filmmaker David Schickele, long overlooked but now restored and reissued, is generating renewed interest. This vividly beautiful and dynamic monochrome film resembles the style of Godard or Cassavetes but possesses its own special qualities. It serves as an astonishing real-time transcription of the life of a young black man living in San Francisco during the turbulent year of 1968.

The film’s central figure is Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam, a young Nigerian non-professional actor portraying a lightly fictionalized version of himself named Gabriel. Gabriel is enrolled in college in San Francisco, mingles with friends, forms romantic relationships with both black and white women, and is constantly trying to earn money. Interlaced with scenes from Gabriel’s life are interviews in which he speaks candidly about his experiences both back home and in the US. As an African national, he is perceived as an exotic outsider in the US, almost exempt from the racism faced by black Americans, who seem white to him—a terrible irony considering what unfolds.

Three-quarters into the film, the screen abruptly cuts to black followed by stunned individuals explaining through audio recordings and still photographs the real-life fate of Okpokam. This narrative twist is a shocking coup de cinema, as Okpokam himself experienced wrongful arrest and deportation during filming. Schickele skillfully weaves these real events into the storyline, blurring the lines between documentary and fiction.

Okpokam’s background includes his appearance in Schickele’s previous 1966 film, “Give Me a Riddle,” a documentary studying recently independent Nigeria through the eyes of a US Peace Corps volunteer. This docu-realist approach continues in “Bushman” as Schickele and his crew follow Gabriel through city streets, capturing spontaneous moments like a young man playfully jumping in front of the camera.

Gabriel’s romantic life is complex. Alma, played by Elaine Featherstone, is a beautiful black woman engaged in the political struggle back in Watts. Gabriel also has brief yet intense relationships with a young white woman and Susie, portrayed by Timothy Near. The scenes with Susie are particularly poignant, achieving a languorous eroticism as she tenderly brushes and caresses Gabriel’s hair and skin. There is also a subplot involving Felix, a rich gay man portrayed by Jack Nance, who later becomes an iconic figure in David Lynch’s films.

“Bushman” delves into themes of sex, power, and the white imperial rules of Britain and the US in a lightly sophisticated manner. The fragmented dialogue is particularly striking, with lines that linger in memory. One memorable moment features Susie dismissing her partner’s suspicions about her relationship with Gabriel with the remark: “A sentence understood is more intimate than a kiss.” This film exemplifies stylish, energized new wave filmmaking.

After his deportation, Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam returned to Nigeria, where he became a teacher and playwright before passing away in 2018. Despite his brief acting career, Okpokam achieved an intense, unique form of hidden greatness through his role in “Bushman.”

“Bushman” will be in UK cinemas starting 12 July.

Source: The Guardian, Particle News