A Closer Look At Angolan Cinema

Katy Stewart explores an African country whose an artistic approach to revolution is now in the throes a bold comeback.

By , 11 Jul 18 17:00 GMT
Still from Sambizanga (1972). Courtesy of Screen Slate.

Angola has the distinction of being the first Lusophone African nation to produce a feature film: Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1972). Indeed, some of African cinema’s great works have emerged out of the country’s most troubled, turbulent times.

Today, as is sadly the case across the continent, a great many of Angola’s once-sensational movie theaters sit crumbling and abandoned. It is these battle-scarred buildings that tell the story of a nation of cinephiles, where Westerns and Kung-Fu films fueled the popular imagination but sparked resistance from Angolan filmmakers and intellectuals. The early beginnings of a cinema industry may have been decimated by the lengthy civil war, but from out of the ashes we see a generation of fired-up, young filmmakers arising.

Sambizanga and An Artists’ Revolution

Angola’s fight for independence from Portugal was one led by poets and artists. Both Mário Pinto de Andrade, the founder of the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola – one of the two main liberation movements and political parties in Angola) and Agostinho Neto, the first president of Angola, were both highly regarded as poets, as well as revolutionaries and political leaders. During the War of Independence, it was artistic cinema, rather than just documentaries, that became a natural tool of liberation.

This was exemplified by Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga, made in 1972. Born in France to Guadeloupian parents, Maldoror gained prominence as a filmmaker in Angola’s independence struggle after marrying Mário Pinto de Andrade. In 1968, she debuted a short film, Monangambée, based on a short story by Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira. Sambizanga was to follow, also based on one of Luandino Vieira’s literary works. In doing so, she achieved several firsts: it was the first feature film in both Angola and Lusophone Africa, and the first African feature film made by a woman.

Still from Nelisita (1983). Courtesy of IMDb.

It is striking that in Sambizanga – a film ostensibly about Domingo, a resistance fighter arrested by the colonial regime – the real focus is on Domingo’s wife, Maria, as she searches tirelessly and fearlessly for her husband in the prisons of Luanda, bringing a strong female perspective into the normally male-dominated narratives of African liberation struggles.

The majority of Angola’s liberationist filmmakers – some of whom are still active today – were multitalented artists, in keeping with the artistic character of the revolution. Among the best known are Antonio Olé, best-known nowadays for his photography artwork, and the late Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, equally regarded as a writer and filmmaker. It seems that the crucial task in the lengthy liberation struggle – which lasted from the early 1960s until 1975 – was to capture the imagination of Angolan citizens and get them to join the fight against the Portuguese, by whatever artistic means necessary. Film proved particularly potent in this respect, hence the uptake of film by these artists of the revolution.

The still-unfinished Cine Place Namibe in Namibe, Angola. Courtesy of The Calvert Journal.

Lost Movie Theaters

In the late colonial period, the war of independence was raging in the movie theaters as well as the streets. While the artists of the revolution were making their impassioned films of resistance, in the many ornate theaters of Luanda and beyond, a cultural struggle for hearts and minds was taking place. Along with short Portuguese propaganda films, these cinemas had a roster of shiny international releases, with Westerns and Kung Fu films proving to be particularly popular.

Yet while some intellectuals decried these international imports as an insidious form of colonization, the communal act of cinema-going provided a subversive space for generating liberationist thought. The high action of the films also inspired military action on the ground: there still exists an elite paramilitary group, set up by the MPLA, known as the Ninjas.

Nowadays, most of the theaters that played these films, many of them architecturally stunning and flamboyant buildings, have fallen into disrepair, ravaged by civil war, and subject to the same pressures that have seen cinemas close across the continent. There is, however, a recent project called the Archive of Historical Cinemas in Africa, initiated by the Portuguese film director Miguel Hurst and the Goethe Foundation, which is aiming to archive and potentially restore these great buildings. Angola Cinemas, a sumptuous book with photography by Walter Fernandes, has been produced out of the project’s work so far. 

Still from O Herói (2004). Courtesy of Fandor.

Screening Trauma in the Post-Civil War Period

Civil war between the two opposing liberation parties, MPLA and UNITA, followed on pretty soon after the war of independence against Portugal, and raged from 1975 until 2002. It devastated Angola and left many wounds which are still yet to heal. The war also decimated the country’s nascent film industry, so in the years since the civil war, filmmakers have not only had to contend with the trauma wrought by the war and the silence surrounding it, but also the incredibly difficult conditions of film production.

Several post-civil war films take the war and its trauma as subject matter, albeit in an often allusive way, such as Zézé Gamboa’s O Herói (The Hero, 2004), in which a disparate group of characters find themselves bound together in their search for lost things following the war. In Pocas Pascoal’s Alda e Maria: Por Aqui Tudo Bem (All is Well, 2013), two teenaged sisters are left to fend for themselves in an unwelcoming Portugal, having fled the war. Maria João Ganga’s Na Cidade Vazia (Hollow City, 2004) is actually set in the midst of the civil war, following a young boy from a war-torn region as he naively navigates the streets of Luanda, and the film, as the title suggests, powerfully demonstrates the hollowness that the war has created at the heart of cities and communities. 

Courtesy of geracao-80.

A Geração 80

There is, however, a growing group of filmmakers in Angola keen to build an entirely new industry. One ambitious, homegrown production company is called Geração 80, reflecting the fact that they are the generation born after independence, and the children of the civil war.

With films including shorts, feature films and documentaries, and a diversity of themes, from Angolan-Chinese relations (Do Outro Lado do Mundo (From the Other Side of the World), Sérgio Afonso, 2016) to the heavy metal music made heavier by the horrors of the civil war (Death Metal Angola, Jeremy Xido, 2012) these producers and directors live and make films from their experiences of war, certainly, but also from their experiences of everyday life post-war and the increasingly globalized world.

Angolan national cinema may have suffered enormously, but it is a cinema with survival instinct. The challenges facing cinema in Angola remain huge, not least due to the economic and political domination of the Dos Santos family (José Eduardo Dos Santos may no longer be president, but his family still rules Angola) which extends deep into the audiovisual sector. But with its many transnational influences, a supremely experienced old guard, and technologically skilled youth, there is the potential for Angolan cinema to thrive once again.

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