Spring 2001

February 4

The revolutionary potential of Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga

Tom Mulcaire

Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga (Angola / Congo, 1972) is a film about acting. In fact, the film was seen to be so effective at mobilizing action that the Portuguese colonial authorities banned it from being screened in their then province of Angola. It was first seen publicly in Angola only after the country won its independence in 1974. Based on a novel by Luandino Vieira, a political prisoner of the Portuguese from 1961 to 1974, Sambizanga is a fictionalized chronicle of the arrest and fatal imprisonment of a man whose underground activities were an impenetrable secret to all around him.

It was at a prison near the Luandan suburb of Sambizanga on February 4, 1961, that the first uprising of what was to become the Angolan resistance movement was staged. The film is set a few weeks before that uprising, during a time of increasingly desperate and repressive security measures by the colonial government. Rather than depicting the rebellion itself, Maldoror concentrates on the events leading up to it, the growing dissatisfaction among people forced into submission by colonial rule, their realization that they must unite to end it, and the subsequent emergence of Angola’s first revolutionary martyrs. In these respects the film may occupy the same position in the history of Angola’s revolution that Eisenstein’s Potemkin did in the history of the Soviet revolution. However, an important difference is that, since Angola’s revolution had not yet been achieved when Maldoror released the film, she was both presenting history and issuing a call to arms. It is worth noting, too, that Maldoror assisted Gilles Pontecorvo in the filming of The Battle of Algiers, a masterpiece of semi-documentary filmmaking and a seminal document in the history of that struggle. Sambizanga could not be made in Angola, and Maldoror decided to film it in the Congo with a French crew and a cast of exiled Angolan guerrillas. The performances are so candid that at times the film appears more as documentary than staged performance. Domingos Oliveira plays, and gives his name to, the doomed hero of the piece, a massive, almost iconic figure who covertly organizes against the Portuguese while working as a tractor driver in a grueling mining quarry. In the establishing shots he is shown as a model worker and a loving husband and father in a young family. But at first light the next morning, a police van screams through the compound towards his house. Domingos is arrested, and in a scene reminiscent of footage of the arrest of Patrice Lumumba, he is trussed, viciously beaten, and thrown into the van to be transported to a prison in Luanda.

His wife Maria, played by Elisa Andrade, is unaware of why her husband was arrested or where he is being taken. To find him she is forced to embark on a long voyage to the capital with their baby. Angry and desperate, she struggles through a world that rarely explains anything to women. Throughout most of Maria’s journey, Maldoror uses a telephoto lens that compresses the space, blurs the countryside, and separates characters from their surroundings. This is the visual equivalent of the Angolan people’s social and political situation. Although their country is rich, the people are prevented from taking any meaningful part in defining its future or distributing its wealth. Maria is presented walking through fields and down endless roads. All the while alone and making little progress, she reaches Luanda. Previously sheltered by men’s conceptions of what women ought to know, Maria walks into a wall of lies, deception, racism, and brutality.

Having been shunted from jail to jail by disinterested warders, Maria finally learns that her husband is being interrogated by the secret police. Her journey to this realization presents the movement towards political consciousness as a physical ordeal. Maldoror uses Maria’s and Domingos’s story to underline the sociological conditions of an oppressed colony and to detail the covert organized web of resistance and solidarity that operates just below the surface of daily life in these situations. The figure of a tailor who teaches Marx while working on a pair of trousers, and a group of small boys who act as his runners as they play in the streets around his shop emphasize that collective action seems to be the only viable path to liberation.

Still, even with the knowledge that his wife sits waiting outside the prison, Domingos refuses to cooperate with the authorities and is beaten to death as an example. The film closes as Maria returns from Luanda. It is too soon for us to assume that she will become a revolutionary, although we may infer that the step is inevitable. News of Domingos’s death reaches the revolutionary community, which immediately begins preparations for the storming of the prison near Sambizanga. Maldoror lets the audience leave on a wave of revolutionary potential, the last scene ending on the rebel leader’s pronouncement that they will attempt to free the political prisoners: “That day is February 4!”

Tom Mulcaire is an artist and curator living between Cape Town and New York. Most recently, his work has been exhibited at the 1998 São Paolo Biennial and at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris. He is currently producing a film called Johnny inside the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

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