Film

Sarah Maldoror’s revolutionary film Sambizanga is a highlight of Cinema Reborn, a festival of past gems. By Philippa Hawker.

Sambizanga

Benoît Moutsila as Chico and Henriette Meya as Bébiana in Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga.
Benoît Moutsila as Chico and Henriette Meya as Bébiana in Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga.
Credit: Courtesy Cinema Reborn

In Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga, everything is political. It is a film about resistance and colonial brutality, but it is also, at various times, about songs, a game of marbles, a woman walking mile after mile with a child on her back, a young boy keeping watch, the running of errands and the passing of messages, the sharing of meals and the need to dance. It is a rich, carefully constructed work in which disparate moments belong together, a testimony to the radical power of the everyday.

Maldoror’s 1972 film, set in Angola but shot in the Republic of the Congo, is part of Cinema Reborn, a festival of restored treasures screening next week in Sydney. It is a highlight from a strong program, a significant film in its own right that should lead audiences to search out more of her work.

Maldoror, who died of Covid-19 in 2020, produced features, documentaries, shorts and television work across decades. She was born Sarah Ducados in 1929 in south-western France, the daughter of a French mother and a father from Guadeloupe. She started her creative life in theatre; in the 1950s she was a co-founder of Les Griots, a theatre group seeking to present innovative productions that gave opportunities denied elsewhere to Black performers.

She renamed herself when she arrived in Paris, taking her surname from the surreal 19th-century prose poem “Les chants de Maldoror”. Poetry and art were always important to Maldoror and to her activism. As well as providing the subjects of many of her documentaries, they were also inspirations for her approach to filmmaking. Music was another significant element. In Sambizanga, the music – on the soundtrack, or as part of everyday, spontaneous expression, a way to mourn or to celebrate – plays a significant role in the texture and world of the film.

Sambizanga – named for a working-class district of Angola’s capital, Luanda – was set in 1961. It was shot in 40 days with a mostly non-professional cast, many of whom were Angolan or Congolese activists. It was not possible to film in Angola, which has been under various forms of Portuguese colonial rule since the 16th century and was still fighting for independence. Maldoror’s husband, Mário Pinto de Andrade, was a founder of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He co-wrote Sambizanga with Maldoror and Maurice Pons, adapting a novella by José Luandino Vieira.

Maldoror gravitated towards cinema in the late 1950s and went to film school in Moscow in 1961. Sambizanga begins with the image of turbulent, crashing waves, a moment that echoes the opening of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a work that had a great influence on her. Like Potemkin, Sambizanga is about the events that precede an uprising.

From this image she takes us to a nearby building site, showing the gruelling nature of the work before she introduces the figure of Domingos (Domingos de Oliveira), a tractor driver who turns out to be a covert activist. At the end of the day he heads home to his village, to his wife Maria (Elisa Andrade) and their young son, and to a spontaneous game of football with the neighbourhood kids. Maldoror takes her time with these scenes too. There is a delicacy and tenderness in this portrait of their domestic life: a walk, a meal, soothing and crooning to a crying baby.

Then comes a sudden and decisive rupture. At dawn the next day, the bare-chested Domingos is grabbed from his hut by local police under the direction of a colonial overseer. He is restrained with ropes, bundled into a Land Rover and driven away. Maria runs after the vehicle, sobbing and crying out. She’s surrounded by sympathetic villagers, mostly women, who comfort her and hold her baby and encourage her to search for her husband.

An additional narrative strand begins to emerge: alongside the separate stories of husband and wife, Maldoror introduces clandestine networks of association, support and resistance. A sharp-eyed boy notices Domingos being brought into the jail and various characters become aware of what is going on. Meanwhile, Maria leaves the village, travelling on foot most of the way, carrying the baby on her back.

A song accompanies mother and child on their journey. In Sambizanga, music is used in different ways, sometimes on the soundtrack and sometimes as a diegetic presence. At this point it is almost as if the song is part of Maria’s consciousness, an inner voice propelling her onwards. It recurs later, sung a cappella by a single voice, over scenes of both husband and wife, linking them even as they are separated.

When she arrives in the city, Maria is fobbed off or sent from one police station to another. There are times when her isolation is palpable, yet she is not alone. Activists, young and old, become aware of her plight and her connection with Domingos, showing her where to go, encouraging her, sharing information.

There is something taut yet at the same time leisurely about the way Sambizanga unfolds. Its rhythms vary, depending on context. Things take time, details accumulate gradually. The Land Rover’s number plate is repeated like a mantra. A description of Domingos circulates, passed from person to person. He might have disappeared into police custody but there are people on the outside attempting to learn his name and his fate, to keep him alive, to make contact, to prevent his erasure, to get a message to him.

For Domingos, names matter in a different way. In prison, he is brutally questioned, pressed to identify fellow activists and betray them. Maldoror conveys the viciousness of interrogation, presenting the violence in a deftly contained, sharply edited fashion.

Sambizanga has a sense of intimacy that comes in part from its use of close-ups, in part from the accumulation of sensory detail. There are brief explicitly political statements in the film, but what emerges most strongly is a sense of the quotidian and the communal.

Domingos is a prisoner for almost the entire film, defined by his refusal to talk and by his increasingly brutalised body. Maria, through her journey, gradually becomes a figure of resistance and persistence. They are at the centre of the film but also part of a broader picture in which other lives are depicted. And with these lives, Maldoror shows the energy and joy that can coexist with the grimness of struggle: from shared meals to the beginnings of a relationship between activist Chico and his girlfriend Bébiana to a Saturday night party with music and dance that continues, even in the face of terrible news, with a sense of shared affirmation.

Sambizanga went to festivals, won awards and was bought by overseas distributors. Maldoror went to the United States for its release. The New York Times and Village Voice reviewed it and found much to admire. Since then, rights issues kept it out of sight for some years, but its restoration has come at a time when there is renewed interest in Maldoror and her projects. At the Palais de Tokyo in Paris earlier this year, there was an exhibition of her work and its impact. Her daughters, Annouchka de Andrade and Henda Ducados, continue to be custodians of her legacy and strong advocates for the preservation, restoration and circulation of her work. De Andrade has recorded a special introduction for the Cinema Reborn screenings of Sambizanga.

There are more than a dozen restored films in this year’s Cinema Reborn program. They range from Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) to Ernst Lubitsch’s witty tale of consummate con artists, Trouble in Paradise (1932), from the Chinese silent film The Goddess (1934), with its central performance from the extraordinary Ruan Lingyu, to Joseph Losey’s World War II collaboration nightmare, Mr. Klein (1976), starring Alain Delon.

The program also includes a number of films that speak to aspects of Sambizanga in very different ways. Batch ’81 (1982) presents Mike de Leon’s take on fascism via a satirical account of hazing rituals at a university in the Philippines. Art and activism feature in a collection of Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit films from the 1950s. And the opening night work is Claire Denis’ 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail, a tale of colonial ritual and male obsession shot in Djibouti that miraculously incorporates music and dance into unexpected areas of its haunted, melancholy narrative. 

Cinema Reborn is showing at Ritz Cinemas in Randwick, Sydney, from April 27 to May 3.

 

ARTS DIARY

CINEMA Screenwave International Film Festival

Venues throughout Coffs Harbour, NSW, until May 6

LITERATURE Clunes Booktown Festival

Clunes, Victoria, April 29–May 1

COMEDY Brisbane Comedy Festival

Venues throughout Brisbane, April 29–May 29

VISUAL ARTS Illustrating the Antipodes

South Australian Museum, Adelaide, until May 8

FESTIVAL Shore Leave Festival

Geraldton, Western Australia, April 27–May 1

Last Chance

CULTURE Thailand Grand Festival

Kitchener Drive, Darwin, April 23

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "A treasure restored".

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Philippa Hawker writes on film and is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.

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