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David Schickele’s Bushman

David Schickele’s Bushman (1971)

A hit last summer at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Cinema Rediscovered in Bristol, the new restoration of David Schickele’s Bushman (1971) will be one of the unmissable highlights of this year’s To Save and Project, the twentieth edition of the Museum of Modern Art’s festival of film preservation. Schickele grew up in Fargo (we often forget that it’s an actual city in North Dakota), conducted the local community orchestra when he was fifteen, and had a hand in his brother Peter’s creation of the comedic fictional composer P. D. Q. Bach. A respected freelance violist gigging at Radio City Music Hall, David Schickele left New York in his early twenties to join the Peace Corps.

He taught English at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka and documented his experiences there in his first feature, Give Me a Riddle (1966). One of the prominent figures in the film is Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam, who is seen teaching Chinua Achebe’s landmark novel Things Fall Apart at a girls’ school. In 1968, two years into the Nigerian Civil War, Okpokam fled the country for the U.S. and landed a job teaching at San Francisco State College.

Schickele cast Okpokam in Bushman as Gabriel, a slightly fictionalized version of himself, an exile in a country undergoing a massive political, social, and cultural transformation. Calling Bushman an invaluable time capsule from a crucial year for America—and certainly for San Francisco as well—may come off as faint praise, but David Myers’s outstanding black-and-white cinematography and Schickele’s direction offer fresh angles on the neighborhoods, bars, roadside cafés, and dingy apartments that often go missing from films of the era.

Gabriel wanders, reads, sings, looks for work, carves wood, and clings to a letter from home. His girlfriend seems to be only half-jokingly trying to turn him into a Black American, and before too long, she’s out of the picture. Gabriel has a brief fling with a white liberal whose misreading of Marshall McLuhan is rivaled only by the guy standing in line behind Woody Allen in Annie Hall. He strikes up a new relationship that seems promising but before it can go anywhere, the movie halts. All along, Schickele had planned to steer the story toward a run-in with authorities, but a bizarre real-life twist upended his plans. “Truth was not stranger than fiction,” says Schickele to the camera, “just a little faster.”

Among the touchstones Il Cinema Ritrovato programmer Cecilia Cenciarelli cites in her notes are “cinéma vérité, the European new waves, and early Cassavetes” as well as African filmmakers Ousmane Sembène, Désiré Ecaré, and Med Hondo. “With irony, poetry, and a delicate touch, Bushman leads us into the darkness of the beginnings of an odyssey,” she writes. “And for days, you are unable to think of anything else.” Bushman will screen in Berlin on January 22 as part of the Unknown Pleasures festival, and then at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from February 3 through 24 and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, on February 11.

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