Sambizanga

12/11/2011

Angola / 1972 / Portuguese & Kimbundu

Directed by Sarah Maldoror

With Elisa Andrade, Domingos de Oliveira, Jean M’Vondo

Still from 'Sambizanga'The raging river dashes itself against the yellow sand, while a team of laborers harvests great big rocks from the shore, breaking them down to manageable size to carry them off to be used as building material. The beach is at once an elemental place and one of constant foment, this idea driven home as the camera moves from the water to the workers. In the modern world, they are the human element, and also the last frontier in revolutionary possibility. If they can break enormous stones with only their hands and a stone tool, what keeps them from breaking the chains that keep them bound? Alongside the men working only with their bodies is Domingos, a hulking young Angolan driving a tractor to haul yet more rocks. The white foreman, Mr. Sylvester, seems to have a close relationship with Domingos, to the slight befuddlement of Timoteo, a young recruit to the team whose instinct is to be suspicious of the Portuguese.

Domingos returns home to the worker’s colony where he lives, still dressed in his jumpsuit. He kicks a soccer ball with the local children, carries his baby son, and then eats supper with his wife, Maria. Why is he late in coming home? He has been talking with Timoteo, bringing the young man into the fold of the revolutionary worker’s organization of which he is already member. Domingos receives pamphlets from nationalist revolutionaries in Luanda, and gives them to Timoteo to hand out among the other workers.

All is peaceful in the hut. Director Sarah Maldoror expresses the poetry of bodies at rest through Maria and Domingos lying in bed – both half-clothed, along with their baby – he exhausted after a day of construction, she after a day of domestic labor, both of them smooth and muscular in a very work-worn, but still youthful, way. The police show up at their camp and quickly raid the hut, pulling a struggling Domingos outside. There are four carrying him, one man for each of his mighty limbs, and they tie him up with rope and throw him into a truck, which speeds away down the road. For no reason, no explanation, the man is gone.

The neighbors gather inside Maria’s hut to comfort her, and the atmosphere is still, silent, almost funereal, giving a finality to what has happened. Meanwhile in the back of the truck, Domingos screams and raves, lashing out against his captors. Here he resembles a captured slave, bound and bestial in a reduced state of violence. Maria’s neighbor tells her to go and make a scene at the local administrative office – to illicit their pity so they will tell him of her whereabouts. She is a woman who cannot start petitions, is not meant to raise outcry, is meant to suffer with dignity, and thus has limited means of challenging the injustice of her husband’s arrest. No savings, no transportation, no real allies – she has her son, two feet, and a voice.

Still from 'Sambizanga'As he is dragged into police headquarters, the neighborhood people look on, including a young boy named Zito. He runs to tell his grandfather, and the two of them leave the shelter of their slum for the tall buildings of the city center to look for the old man’s godson, Chico. They relate the story to Chico, how the young boy saw a man being hauled into the museke (neighborhood) prison, and put him on the case of trying to identify the captive. This seems to be the people’s usual protocol (a street-level version of intelligence-gathering) for all the political prisoners that find their way into the prison. That Domingos has been taken from his hometown in Dondo, 150 miles away, to the capital city, Luanda, suggests that the central government has an interest in his interrogation. For those in the nationalist movement, so far mainly operating in secret, this could strike a huge blow; if tortured, the man might name names.

Maria sets off, encouraged and supplied with provisions by her neighbors, to find Domingos. She walks slowly, with downcast eyes, to where the dirt road meets the pavement, and continues to the nearest city. Far from being repressed by the situation, she takes on a grim strength she may not have been aware existed. A woman’s plaintive, unaccompanied song is heard on the soundtrack as Maria trudges through tall grass, slow, determined, with more than just the weight of her child riding on her back. She carries the hope for future generations, something already pregnant with expectation even before the first arms have been taken up against the oppressors. Her war foreshadows that which her country would engage in for more than a decade, and it predates her life, being already generations old at that point.

Chico tracks down his old friend Miguel, a fellow revolutionary under the tutelage of a man named Mussunda. He takes Miguel aside to the shoreline, a favored meeting spot where the noise of the breakers precludes being spied on or overheard. Miguel then goes to Mussunda, who works as a tailor while engaging young socialists in dialectical talk. Mussunda, as one of the figureheads of the movement is understandably nervous about Salazar’s PIDE agents descending upon him, and so must keep a low profile and his associations shrouded in secret. For him it is most urgent that they know who the burly prisoner is, to assess if he might point them out to the authorities. So while Maria is trying to discover the location of Domingos, the MPLA people are trying to discover his name.

Domingos, still shirtless from when he was kidnapped, stands before two police officers, his face cut and swollen. To get him to cooperate, he is told that Maria is waiting for him outside. He maintains his resilience by denying everything. The mulatto chief plays the good cop, while the white officer plays the brutalizer. When Domingos refuses to talk he is beaten severely. He is of little consequence to them; they really want to know the name of the white man who helps their anticolonial activities.

Still from 'Sambizanga'Maria finds her way to the district administrator’s office, and tells her plight to the man in charge. He responds that Domingos was a bandit, and that his arrest was entirely justified. She stages a breakdown, out of frustration and anger, repeating a wail for her husband like a ceremonial dirge. A man working as a guard at the administrative office, whom she knows, sends her on a bus to Luanda, revealing to her that her husband has been taken there. So she continues into even more unfamiliar territory, driven to locate him. But there is no thought to what she will do when she knows where he is. She resembles a long-colonized people pushing their way toward independence – they only know that they need to have it, not what they will do once they have located it. To know him again – even if it is in the form of bad news, an end to their life together – is what she intends to have. The other resistance fighters seem more convinced that he is a lost cause, and want to protect themselves and Domingos’ other compatriots from a similar fate.

The bright, circular patterns of her village dress stand out among the dull ordinariness of the city. In the middle of the night she arrives at the house of an acquaintance, Mrs. Tete, and is immediately given shelter, her baby breastfed by another woman. In the morning she goes to the police station nearby. It is a sleepy, hopeless place, and she is directed to the city police a few blocks away. And so it goes: she bounces from one station to another, led by a small boy, and she variously gets shooed away or curtly brushed off. Each time we see her expression drop lower, her outrage increase. The innermost prison will never be reachable to her, because that is how they were designed. But naive possibility keeps her going from one place to the next. The silence and solitude of her rambling quest is intercut with images of Domingos deep within the prison walls, circling the yard wordlessly with the other prisoners. Although they are separated, the wife and the husband both walk continuously, uncertain but whirling with thoughts.

Maldoror focuses on the very personal struggle of Maria, while keeping the parallel chains of events as a framing outline. While she doesn’t spend the greatest length of time with Maria, she holds her ordeal as equal in importance to the other narrative strands. That sensitivity to the woman’s plight provides a contrasting light to Mussunda’s apparent callousness. While Domingos’ disappearance is a momentary loss for the construction crew and the resistance movement, they have to move forward. For Maria the trauma is permanent, and her story is lost on them in the face of the broader picture. For the spectator it initially feels as though his death has been for naught. But then Maldoror provides us with this hope: Domingos’ plight will go on to radicalize the people whom he knew, as well as those whom he did not know, adding fuel to the armed struggle being planned against the Portuguese colonial authorities. The film ends with men meeting in secret, on the rocks among the crashing waves, setting their sights on February 4th, conceiving the battle for independence that would still be going on while the film was being made, more than ten years after the time in which the novel is set.

Still from 'Sambizanga'The disappearance, interrogation, and torture of Domingos becomes a struggle visible in the consciousness of the public, although the authorities have done their best to keep it hidden away from view. He has friends in the ranks of the prison guards (a secret note from Timoteo makes its way into his water cup) and in those outside in the movement. News about him spreads by word of mouth, and people work (in secret, by necessity) to raise awareness of it. Maria’s plight, meanwhile, takes place in the outside world, but gets largely ignored. While it is half of the reality, equally tortured and hopeless as that of the imprisoned man, the sight of it is too commonplace, too feminine and far from heroic. But she is the most completely-formed hero that the story has – more so than her martyred husband, the tireless revolutionary workers, or Mussunda, a central teacher of the movement. While they seem more like blocks in the piecemeal construction of a revolution, she is engaged in a struggle that seems endless, and fought through varying settings – war, work, migration. She is something greater than the sundered family unit, a living embodiment of the oppression through which the exploited suffer, and also their tenacity, their clinging to life.

While Sambizanga unflinchingly looks at the fate of revolutionaries who are “disappeared” by the state, at the same time, it remains far too attuned to what the wife and child are experiencing to represent them as flip symbols or tragic figurines. Maria is transforming throughout her journey, and continues to struggle even after there is no more hope left. Although she is not, herself, a member of the liberation movement, she is the most representative of their ideals; she continues to fight, even in total darkness. The fight is what keeps her going, not the thought of winning out. While the overall goal of expelling the Portuguese from Angola (as well as capitalism, colonialism – the whole mess) certainly never dimmed throughout the nationalist fight for independence, how many thousands fought in the dark, sacrificed themselves, or persisted without hope? In any mass movement there are individual darknesses, some of which recede with the dawn, but many of which are not lived through to get to that point.

The narrative is built around the reactions of the community, the way they share knowledge and understanding, through which revolution is gradually awakened. At the end of the story, one feels as though it is the common villagers, the uneducated laborers and elderly women of the slums, who have the most revolutionary potential, because they are the most imprisoned, and that they are the backbone of any movement towards greater freedom. The jaded ideologues among them are the intellectual lining to a wider and more comprehensive consciousness, the strategists, the ones who can make sense of what the bosses are trying to do. But ultimately, they don’t represent the populace, even though they are destined to become their leaders – or, more accurately, to undergo a transformation from being leaders to being bosses themselves.

Still from 'Sambizanga'That the filmmaker can retain the powerful urgency that surrounds the film, both within its frame and outside, in the besieged climate in which it was made, while not losing an ounce of the sensitivity in her storytelling that follows Maria and her child with intimacy and empathy. Parallel to her and the baby, gradually being run ragged by their ordeal, is the touching connection between the boy and his grandfather, as well as the genuine efforts they make to save Domingos. They are the most dedicated, it feels, and they are also the most individually powerless characters. As we progress up the hierarchy of influence, the ones who have the most of it seem the least interested in helping, seen in the underwhelming reaction given by the local leader of the movement, and progressing up to the Angolans who work as guards, the ones who mean well but will side with the bosses because of fear and in the interest of self-preservation.

Maldoror is a living legend of bringing post-colonial storytelling into cinema, and Sambizanga is equally legendary, most of all for the auspices under which it was made. Unable to shoot the film in Angola, Maldoror, along with her husband Mário de Andrade (the film’s screenwriter) found locations in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, and, with a motley cast of nonprofessional actors from different parts of Lusophone Africa, made Sambizanga in seven weeks. It was funded by the governments of Congo and France, as well as by the MPLA itself. Knowing that it would never be shown within Angola, the filmmakers intended it more to mobilize audiences in Europe and other parts of Africa, to awaken them to the situation still in progress there.

Nearly every scene of the film seethes with the sights and sounds of the bustling, working-class neighborhood of the title, the scrappy, homemade guitar a child plays; the neighbors idly gossiping with one another; the boys engaged in play-wars. While not a frame of it is actually from Luanda, the locations seem more than adequate for the layered portrait of life the director is trying to create. Maldoror spends a lot of time just looking at people engaged in ordinary activities. They constitute the scenery, for the most part. The narrative maintains Maria’s odyssey as its central artery but, much like the winding lanes of the neighborhood, is not too focused to take us on numerous miniature detours, such as Chico’s budding relationship with a young woman named Bebiana, a neighborhood barbecue where people dance and nosh, or fruit-pickers enumerating the price increases of bananas and manioc. These convincingly unaffected glimpses into everyday life show happiness and idealism mixing with regular, sober survival, and how these things coexist with fear and repression in the air, since they never really go away entirely.

Still from 'Sambizanga'The film is based on the novel The Real Life of Domingos Xavier, by José Luandino Vieira, which was published in the early 60’s. The author had no input on the writing or direction of Sambizanga because he was serving a prison sentence at the time. It would seem that Maldoror shifted the story’s focus more to examine Maria and also, evidently, to Domingos himself, and the pathos of his experience in prison. Both work to great effect. The atmosphere of the film is, as Josef Gugler points out, more redolent of its own time than that of the novel. By 1972 discourses of independence were more fully-formed and liberation ballads floated in the air, much like they do on the soundtrack. The film is more about the human face of Angola’s freedom fight than it is about colonial brutality itself, although there is enough of that seen as well. And even more than being about the people behind the movement, it examines the very real and personal effect of oppression, which takes its toll on a person without regard to his or her level of consciousness or commitment.

While the film is known as a seminal artifact of the Angolan liberation struggle, Maldoror’s intention was not to create an outspoken polemic. And indeed, the film isn’t weighed down by a great deal of direct political statements. Rather, it is a humanist drama that is not at all softened in thematic and aesthetic concerns, but much of whose strength lies in its documentary ingredients. Exceedingly low on production values, the remainder of its efficacy is provided by a powerful story, a faithfulness to what was going on in Angola, and a wide-ranging applicability to people’s movements all around the globe, both in the colonial era (whose death knell it rang proudly) and the post-colonial age (that it signaled lyrically). Like the river’s waters foaming on the shoreline, the laborers, the strategists, old men and children, the stoic women and their feminine support network, are all brought forth and meet at the same front. The struggle takes place on a multitude of levels, and while some of the waves break, there are more behind them that rise up to wash over the rocks.

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