Sarah Maldoror's Sambizanga, 50 years on
Notes by Beti Ellerson
Sambizanga directed by Sarah Maldoror (1929-2020), is considered an African film classic. The African Women in Cinema Blog gives tribute to this masterpiece, during the 50th year of its release in 1972.
Sarah Maldoror had this to say about her film, Sambizanga*:
"In this film I tell the story of a woman. It could be any woman, in any country, who takes off to find her husband. The year is 1961. The political consciousness of the people has not yet matured. I'm sorry if this situation is not seen as a 'good one' and if this doesn't lead to a heightened consciousness among the audience as to what the struggle in Africa is all about. I have no time for films filled with political rhetoric."
"I'm no adherent of the concept of the 'Third World.' I make films so that people--no matter what race or color they are--can understand them. For me there are only exploiters and the exploited, that's all. To make a film means to take a position, and here I take a position, I am educating people. The audience has a need to know that there's a war going on in Angola, and I address myself to those among them who want to know more about it. In my films, I show them a people who are busy preparing themselves for a fight and all that that entails in Africa: that continent where everything is extreme--the distances, nature, etc. Liberation fighters are, for example, forced to wait until the elephants have passed them by. Only then can they cross the countryside and transport their arms and ammunition. Here, in the West, the Resistance used to wait until dark. We wait for the elephants. You have radios, information--we have nothing."
"Some say that they don't see any oppression in the film. If you want to film the brutality of the Portuguese, then I'd shoot my films in the bush. What I wanted to show in Sambizanga is the aloneness of a woman and the time it takes to march."
For Sarah Maldoror born in France of French-Guadeloupean origin, culture has always been a weapon for struggle and liberation as well as a means to re-appropriate the history of African people told from their perspective. Her fiction and documentary films attest to her commitment in this regard. She began in the theatre in 1956 as a founding member of the “Les Griots”, the first black theatre company in Paris. Through acting and stage management she acquired vital skills that would later apply to filmmaking. During that period she also met Angolan writer Mario de Andrade who studied sociology at the Sorbonne and was one of the leaders of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), with whom she would share many years and together they would have two daughters. In the early 1960s she went to Moscow to study filmmaking at Gorki Studio under Sergei Gerassimov and Mark Donskoy; Ousmane Sembene was also his student. When she first learned about the film scholarship to study there, with much excitement she recalled the Sergi Eisenstein film, Battleship Potemkin, a classic in militant cinema. Soon after Maldoror worked as assistant to Gillo Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers (1966) to which Eisenstein’s film is often compared. Later, she too emerged as a trailblazer in militant filmmaking in Africa.
While in Algeria with Mario de Andrade she lived within a milieu of revolutionaries that would have a significant influence on her filmmaking practice. There she directed her first film Monangambee (1969) which portrayed the brutality of the Portuguese towards those incarcerated because of their opposition to colonial rule. Soon after she directed Sambizanga (1972) based on the novel, The True Life of Domingos Xavier by the Angolan writer and militant Luandino Vieira who at the time of the shooting was held as a political prisoner by the Portuguese in the notorious Tarrafal prison.
After leaving Algiers she went to Guinea Bissau, where she directed Des fusils pour Banta, co-produced by Guinea Bissau and financed by Algeria, though never completed. There she joined the resistance movement where she met freedom fighters who were committed and prepared to die. She recalls the shooting of Des fusils pour Banta while in the war zone as an experience that changed her perspective of war in the abstract to “feeling” the reality on the ground. The historical context of Sarah Maldoror’s beginnings demanded a militant cinema and her reputation as a revolutionary and feminist has stayed with her ever since.
The True Life of Domingos Xavier was a point of departure for Sarah Maldoror as it described an Africa fighting for its liberation, an image unknown to the outside world, and hence her role was to give the struggle a voice through cinema. Set in Angola in 1961, the defining moment of the nascent liberation struggle there, the film was shot in Congo-Brazzaville in 1972 when the liberation war against the Portuguese was still raging. Made with an eclectic group of non-professional actors, Domingos de Oliveira, himself a tractor driver, embodies the character Domingos Xavier on which the story is based. Eliza Andrade, an economist who lived in Algiers at the time, interprets the role of Maria. Most of the actors were members of the MLPA and the African independence party of Guinea and Cape Verde. Awarded the Tanit d’Or at Carthage, the film would establish Maldoror’s reputation internationally as a cineaste engagée.
Sambizanga begins with the raging waves of an agitated sea bordering a construction site, intercut with close up shots of men breaking stones, shuttling them on their heads, of tractors shoveling rocks--to the protest song, Monangambee.
The next sequence introduces Domingos--husband, father, model employee and overall good neighbor, enjoying soccer with the young boys. In the same way, Maria, wife, mother and conscientious homemaker, is a caring and thoughtful neighbor. Domingos and Maria, with their infant son Baptiso, a seemingly ordinary working class family, find their lives disrupted by the commitment to the Movement.
Sambizanga parallels Domingos’ world composed of the underground resistance movement and the Portuguese powers that attempt to crush it, and the journey of Maria who meet a cohort of women who support, encourage and comfort her on the long journey from Dondo to the Luanda suburb Sambizanga for which the film is named. Her trajectory represents the majority of the film, symbolic of the long journey ahead towards independence. Parallel to Domingos imprisonment is the search for his identity by the members of the underground movement. Within the Meseke street intelligence network the young boy Chico stakes out the entrance to the prison to see who comes and goes, then reports the information to his grandfather who then tells the postal worker Cisco, who disseminates the information to strategic sources.
The diverse positions of the players in the resistance movement and the informal street intelligence network highlights the breadth of involvement by those in all echelons of society: construction worker, teacher, postal worker, the disabled tailor (who also teaches Marxist discourse to the apprentice), homemakers, and neighbors. The comrades in prison play a crucial psychological role as they support each other, such as the sympathetic warder who smuggles a note in his cup from comrades, and even at death, during the tender moment when Domingos’ body is thrown into the cell, they close his eyes. As they tenderly wipe his face and body, they mourn, sing, remember.
The solitude of both Domingos and Maria frames the story, while Domingos endures a brutal torture and death in silence, refusing to utter the names of comrades, Maria’s long silent walk is punctuated with her cries of despair and the film’s music score of the moans of Ana Wilson’s mourning song.
Finally, Maria arrives at the prison only to find out that Domingos is dead. Though she is unaware that he has died only moments before, his battered body returned to his cell. Around this same time the outside street intelligence network finally discovers the identity of the prisoner.
That Maria is totally unaware of Domingos’ commitment to the movement underscores the compartmentalization of his life into two identities: family and movement. Maria leaves the inscribed boundaries of her home space abrogating the compartmentalized resistance struggle of family and movement within women’s space as wives, mothers and nurturers, to navigate the physical and social environments during her journey to find Domingos. The solidarity within the world of women is visible from the beginning as they come to comfort Maria after Domingos is snatched from their home and within the social boundaries along the way as they spontaneously come to her aid, along the winding roads as she passes by, at the watering station, at the home of Mame Tete as they comfort her while mourning his death.
The pacing of the three main elements coincides with the urgency of the events, culminating with the tragic death of Domingos: Maria to find her husband, the secret police to get Domingos to talk, and the Mekessa intelligence network to find out the name of the newly arrived prisoner. As Maria approaches Luanda the torture of Domingos intensifies, as does the urgent search by the comrades of the underground movement for the name of the prisoner, as they realize that under torture their names may be revealed and the movement comprised.
The story begins and ends with rising, clashing waves of the sea, a metaphor for the growing resistance movement, which bookends its essential elements: the workers and the community together forge a liberation struggle; the impenetrable commitment of members such as Domingos, the various actors in the information/intelligence network, the myriad organizers from all sectors of the population, and Maria, committed to family as she goes to find Domingos with strength and resilience, and the litany of women who support her along the way. As she endures the abduction and death of her husband, the women support her—comforting her, breastfeeding her child, cooling her face, coiffing her hair and offering her food and shelter, the myriad ways that women have always contributed to the liberation struggle.
Everyone has her or his role in the resistance, as strategist, foot soldier distributing pamphlets, runner of vital information, watchman, mothers protecting their sons in hiding, revealing secrets that put their own lives at risk, such as the mother of Sousinha—another militant working underground—all indicative of the myriad ways that women actively participate in the struggle.
Sarah Maldoror has always emphasized the importance of showing women’s involvement in the struggle, “since wars will only end when women take part in making it happen. They don’t have to carry a bazooka, but they must be present.”** Sambizanga illustrates this point very well as Maria, homemaker, wife, mother, like most of the women, goes about daily life oblivious to the inner workings of the struggle and those involved; nonetheless, the presence of the many women who cared for and supported her on her journey in search of Domingos was essential. Would she become involved in the struggle having been catapulted into it in this way? Perhaps, though the film ends with her deep in mourning after learning about the brutal death of her husband. Sarah Maldoror’s intention was to show the collective organization of a resistance movement, slowly coming together, as the disparate players contribute to making it happen. Maria’s response to this world which she has only now learned about, could be another story.
*Sarah Maldoror, “Third World Perspectives”, Women and Film (Nos 5-6, 1974)
**Interview with Sarah Maldoror by Jadot Sezirahiga in the revue Ecrans d’Afrique (1995).
Beti Ellerson. Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television. Africa World Press, (2000)
Francoise Pfaff. Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers. Greenwood Press, (1988).