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‘Bushman’ Review: Restored Indie Gem Captures an Unsettling Collision of Real Life and Fiction

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About an hour into the brief and dazzling Bushman, the central character announces, “I need a hamburger,” and then the screen goes black for a few seconds. When the movie resumes, it’s no longer a drama enlivened by a streetwise documentary sensibility, but a work of straight-up nonfiction. Relying on stills in this last stretch but maintaining the visual fluency of the preceding story, the final 10 minutes recount why director David Schickele stopped filming for a year: He was working instead on securing a release from prison for his wrongfully imprisoned leading man.

There are strong parallels between Gabriel, the onscreen outsider, and Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam, the man who plays him. Both grew up in a Nigerian village. Like Gabriel, Okpokam was a graduate student at San Francisco State College. Schickele’s screenplay was to have ended with Gabriel being deported after falling into trouble with the law. Before he could shoot those scenes, Okpokam’s stateside adventure ended precisely that way.

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The Bottom Line Intimate, assured and dynamic.

Release date: Friday, Feb. 2
Cast: Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam, Elaine Featherstone, Timothy Near, Lothario Lotho, Jack Nance, Ann Scofield
Director-screenwriter: David Schickele
1 hour 13 minutes

But despite the sharp knife of injustice, Bushman is no angry screed or dispirited lament. Bursting with passion, sly humor, satirical swipes and the inescapable heartbeat of insurgency — most of the film was shot in 1968 San Francisco — it’s the life-loving tale of a wise innocent abroad, and the not exactly warm reception he receives.

Produced with a seed grant from the American Film Institute when the organization was itself just a seedling, and lauded on the festival circuit in 1971 and ’72, Bushman is emerging from the shadows of forgotten indies, thanks to Milestone and Kino Lorber, with a luminous 4K restoration that will screen in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with a Los Angeles bow to follow.

It’s a sequel of sorts to Give Me a Riddle, the vibrant hourlong 1966 doc that Schickele produced and directed for the Peace Corps, after convincing the agency’s leadership that his unorthodox approach was worth a shot. They were thinking more along the lines of a clean-cut Disney version; his film, in which the wearing of beards and the consumption of alcohol by Corps volunteers are both on defiant display, bears a disclaimer that it “does not necessarily reflect Peace Corps policy.”

It’s also a compelling historic snapshot, a portrait of Nigeria’s vanguard of young adults in the years before the newly independent country would become embroiled in civil war. Okpokam is one of the four charismatic Nigerians at the center of Riddle, friends and students of Schickele when he was a Peace Corps volunteer a few years earlier. (Another Corps vet, Roger Landrum, is the director’s onscreen stand-in.) Both films end with the image of Okpokam’s smiling face, though the contexts couldn’t be more different. (Riddle, a fascinating work in its own right, will have a special screening in Seattle, in conjunction with the release of Bushman, with further theatrical possibilities in the works.)

Bushman’s Gabriel is three months into his American sojourn as the film opens. The evocative shimmer of the black-and-white cinematography by David Myers (whose subsequent credits would include Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue, Myers’ last film before his death) finds Gabriel walking barefoot through a desolate section of the city, his shoes balanced on his head. An opening title card sets the broader mood, reminding us that in 1968 Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Bobby Hutton (a Black Panther killed by Oakland police) are among the recent dead, and that Nigeria’s civil war is in its second year.

The woman Gabriel’s been seeing, Alma (Elaine Featherstone), is packing up to return to Watts, feeling the call to be of service to her native community. In one of the film’s many incisive lines, she notes that all her friends there are either unhappily raising kids or, if they’re among the “best people” — the ones who have “something to say” — they’re in jail. Featherstone, who apparently had never before acted and never did again, brings fire to the role, and her scenes with Okpokam pulse with the playful intimacy and unspoken tension of lovers in their final hours together.

Another source of tension for Gabriel, who’s working on a master’s in drama, is his expired work visa. He needs to find a job yet lay low, avoiding the demonstrations and clashes with police around the San Francisco State College strike, a months-long protest led by the Black Students Union and a coalition known as the Third World Liberation Front. The specifics of the campus unrest aren’t addressed directly in the main part of the movie, which, through its protagonist’s eyes, regards his new surroundings not in terms of political divisions but with an artist’s sense of person-to-person discovery.

Via voiceover and in an on-camera interview-style monologue, Gabriel talks about his upbringing: the traditional initiation rituals, the ancestral shrines, the Catholic schooling. It seems he has known all his life what it means to be between two worlds. And yet the Americans are a whole other level of strange. A loudmouthed motorcyclist (Mike Slye) who gives Gabriel a ride demands that he “say something in African.” There’s the one-night stand with a white sociology student (Ann Scofield) whose fascination with “this natural man all at home with himself” doesn’t take long to curdle into something very ugly. There’s the rich gay man (Jack Nance), a borderline caricature “yearning,” as Schickele puts it so strikingly in his synopsis, “to be ravished by the Dark Continent.” They’re not all baddies, though; something genuine sizzles beneath the surface in Gabriel’s romance with Suzie (Timothy Near).

In a letter to his son, Schickele wrote that “Paul was a spirited soul who always prided himself on being a bushman. Being bush in Nigeria was like being country in America, rural and unsophisticated, maybe, but full of heart.” The filmmaker’s friend, onetime student and documentary subject is also a captivating leading man, and his absence from most of the final sequence of Bushman, after expressing, with a laugh, that all-American need for a burger, is an aching void.

Home again in Nigeria (he was not permitted back in the States), Okpokam returned to teaching and wrote plays, as well as acting and directing in rural theater groups, and died in 2018, when he was 78. Schickele, a songwriter, musician and teacher as well as an independent filmmaker, died at 62 in 1999. His assured and dynamic filmmaking takes on new life with Bushman’s restoration.

Picking up the story a couple of years after Okpokam’s arrest, Schickele notes in the film’s closing section that some of the buildings in the original footage have been demolished. Even upon its festival premiere, Bushman was a time capsule, offering vivid evidence of the city’s pre-gentrified stretches. And now, in its new 4K glory, this scrappy seat-of-the-pants gem is alive with gorgeous ghosts, among them a number of performers who would never again appear onscreen. “A traveler is like a ghost,” Gabriel tells that obnoxious guy on the motorcycle. “He keeps going.”

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