‘Bushman’ Review: Outsider Art

by The Technical Blogs

A film of and ahead of its time, David Schickele’s “Bushman” — first shown in 1971 and featured at New Directors/New Films in 1972 but never formally released in New York — is finally opening in a pristine restoration. Its status as a half-forgotten outsider of American independent cinema makes a weird sort of sense.

It isn’t a masterpiece, but it probably couldn’t have been. The star, Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam, was arrested and deported before shooting finished, and Schickele (who died in 1999) had to adapt. Fifteen minutes before it ends, “Bushman,” having already blurred fiction and nonfiction, becomes a documentary about the real-life circumstances that led to its unraveling. “The guy that was playing the part of Gabriel — well, he ain’t here no more,” a man explains to the camera.

Until then, Okpokam, who had appeared in a previous documentary that Schickele filmed in Nigeria, has indeed played Gabriel, a Nigerian living in the hippie-radical ferment of San Francisco in 1968 — a turbulent year both domestically and in Nigeria, which was embroiled in civil war.

“Bushman” could accurately be called a fish-out-of-water movie, but part of the conceit is that Gabriel, who happily identifies as a bushman, seems more settled than everyone else. (At the outset, he provides language instruction for the Peace Corps — “then they go over to Africa and teach us civilization,” he quips.) His girlfriend, Alma (Elaine Featherstone), insisting that he can’t relate to people “on the block,” tries to explain how he should “talk Black.” (Soon after, her brother makes fun of her for code switching.)

After she departs from his life (and the film) for Watts, where she grew up, Gabriel encounters various others. A sociology student (Ann Scofield) regards him in academic terms (“McLuhan would really appreciate this”). A man (Jack Nance, before “Eraserhead”) tries to talk him into sex.

But the jarring switch to documentary gives “Bushman” its added charge. Paul’s legal troubles — it’s strongly suggested that he was framed — amplify the echoes between the film and life. Misunderstandings no longer seem trivial. The state can only see an innocent abroad as guilty.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 13 minutes. In theaters.

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