Sambizanga and Sarah Maldoror

by Michael Dembrow, IS198

Sarah Maldoror's ambitious 103-minute feature film, Sambizanga, was released for world-wide distribution in 1972. It won the Gold Palm at the 1972 Carthage Film Festival and opened to very positive reviews in the capitals of Europe and in New York. The film, when released, was important for three reasons: as a fiction film focusing on the liberation movement of Black Africans (specifically Angolans); as a film produced by a fledgling African film industry; and as a film centering on a woman's experience, produced by an accomplished woman filmmaker.

Maldoror was hailed as a promising new director, important as a Third World filmmaker and as a woman filmmaker, director of feature films, an inspiration to women in film world-wide, a trail-blazer. In many ways, though, hers is a sad story. Maldoror's career in film since 1972 has stagnated, for various reasons--economic, political (including gender politics), and personal. Producing films is a challenge for all African filmmakers, for women especially.


Maldoror's Career Before Sambizanga

Maldoror was born Sarah Ducados ("Maldoror" came from the title character of Les Chants de Maldoror, a book by the French author Lautréamont that was much-loved by the French Surrealists) in France of parents who had emigrated from Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. She founded a Parisian theatrical group, Les Griotes (The Storytellers), in 1956 and adapted works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Aimé Césaire for theater. Like many young third-world artists with leftist politics, she was invited to study at the Moscow Film Academy in the early Sixties, where she worked under the great director Mark Donskoi. In doing so, she was following in the footsteps of Ousmane Sembène, who would become Black Africa's most important filmmaker.

After her course of study at the Academy, Maldoror began to work on politically committed films in various African countries. She worked as assistant on Gillo Pontecorvo's celebrated film, The Battle of Algiers (1966). She was an assistant director for Algerian filmmaker Ahmed Lallem, and then made her first short, Monangambée, in 1969. It was based on a short story by a white Angolan writer-activist, Luandino Vieira, who was deported to a Portuguese concentration camp in 1961. The title, Monangambée, was the call used by the anti-colonialist forces in Angola to signal a village meeting. In this seventeen-minute film, shot with amateur actors in Algeria, Maldoror told of an impoverished black woman who visits her husband, wrongfully imprisoned, in the miserable jails of the capital city of Luanda. This story contains themes that Maldoror would later explore in Sambizanga.

In 1970 Maldoror acted in a fiction feature film about the liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau, Guns for Banta, made in Algeria. In 1971 she directed The Future of St. Denis, a documentary on the Paris Commune, and she worked on a collective film project, Louise Michel, La Commune et Nous, a documentary on the Paris Commune (the revolutionary movement in 1870 Paris), who supported educational reform to allow girls equal rights to education. Both films were sponsored by the French Communist Party.

Sambizanga was made in 1972, while the liberation struggle in Angola was still raging. It was shot in the neighboring country of the People's Republic of the Congo. It was made under the auspices of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), of which her husband, Mario de Andrade, was the former President and its foreign affairs secretary. Andrade, a poet, collaborated on the screenplay for the film. Although the film is not overtly pro-MPLA propaganda (Maldoror has declared that she has no time "for films filled with political rhetoric"), it clearly reflects MPLA values. It is set in 1961, when Andrade was President of the Movement.

The screenplay was an adaptation of another work by Luandino Vieira, La Vraie Vie de Domingos Xavier (The Real Life of Xavier Domingos, London: Heinemann African Writers Series, 1978). The screenwriters (Andrade, Maurice Pons, and Maldoror) altered the story to put more emphasis on the experience of the fictional Domingos Xavier's wife, Maria. They also changed the title to Sambizanga, the name of the working-class neighborhood in Luanda where a notorious Portuguese prison was located, and in which the film's hero was confined and eventually tortured to death. The assault on the prison on February 4, 1961, was the first coordinated act of armed uprising against the Portuguese, and the film ends with the attack being planned.


Plot Summary of the Film

Sambizanga opens in a coastal village where the men are employed on a construction gang. We follow Domingos, a big, handsom tractor driver, as he as a friendly conversation with Sylvester, a Portuguese engineer. The opening credits appear and we hear the song Monanagambée on the sountrack. Domingos returns home (kicking a soccer ball around with some neighborhood kids en route), where his wife, Maria, awaits him with their infant son. They have a peaceful dinner together. Domingos visits a friend, and brings along a secret revolutionary flyer. We then see Domingos and Maria in bed together with their baby; they take turns holding the boy, trying to calm him into sleep.

Suddenly, at first light, a Land Rover appears in the village, and Domingos is tied up and forced into the vehicle. We realize that the "friend" of the previous evening has betrayed him. Several of the other men slip out of their huts and flee into the fields. Stunned, Maria tries to follow the departing Land Rover, but it is quickly out of sight. She is comforted by the other village women, who bring her food. One of them tells her that she must walk to the town and search for her husband; she is also advised to bring little Bastido, and to make sure he cries when she asks the police about her husband's whereabouts.

Meanwhile, in Luanda a young boy named Zito sees Domingos being taken from the Land Rover into prison. He tells Petelo, an old disabled man who is a nationalist sympathizer, about the prisoner, and they go to tell Chico, a postman and MPLA activist. Chico hears their story and resolves to discover the prisoner's identity.

Maria begins the long walk in the hot sun from her village to the regional capital, baby Bastido on her back. A woman's lovely voice sings gently but plaintively on the soundtrack.

Chico goes to find another MPLA activist, Miguel. There he meets his girlfriend, young Bebiana, Miguel's younger sister. They have a bit of an argument over Chico's infidelity. Chico tells Miguel about the prisoner, and Miguel promises to pass the news on to Mussunda, one of their leaders.

An increasingly exhausted Maria continues her journey, pausing briefly in a village for some water. Finally, she reaches the town. She goes to the central Administration building, where she finds a Black policeman whom she knows (presumably a man from her village). He presents her to a light-skinned official, who tells her roughly that her husband is a criminal and that she should get out. She begins to cry, but it does not good, and the official leaves. She slaps the villager-policeman, calls him a shitty turncoat for siding with the Portuguese to make the Africans suffer. He then confesses the truth, that her husband has been taken to Luanda. The officials were saying that Domingos wanted to kill all the Whites. He adds that the policemen has beaten her husband, but this she cannot believe; she is sure that he is making up stories. He calms her, puts her on the bus for Luanda, and tells her to go to the police there and to find lodging with Mama Tete, a woman from their village. Maria rides the bus, and we see images of Domingos in prison, standing around, walking in a circle with other prisoners.

She reaches Luanda and finally, late at night, she reaches the home of Mama Tete. She breaks down in tears, but is comforted by Mama Tete and the other women in the household; one of the other women even takes Maria's baby to her breast. The next morning, Mama Tete volunteers one of the neighborhood boys to lead Maria to the police station. Maria is clearly unsure of herself in these new surroundings (she hasn't been to Luanda for 12 years). At the police station, a decent Portuguese official tells her that her husband must be a political prisoner, but she asserts that Domingos is not political. Nevertheless, he directs her to the headquarters of the political police. There, she is thrown out and sworn at by a couple of Whites in civilian dress.

Meanwhile, Domingos waits in prison, walking around in a circle with the other prisoners, talking and gesturing to himself.

Miguel hops a ride into town and goes to Mussunda, a tailor who is giving lessons in class consciousness to two young recruits to the movement. He argues that their society's problems should not be viewed in terms of whites, blacks, and mulattoes, but in terms of rich and poor. Miguel tells him about Domingos, but Mussunda cannot identify the new prisoner. None of their local activists is so big and strong. He promises to somehow find out, and tells Miguel that there will be a big party for party activists on Saturday night.

Domingos is brought to his first interrogration session. He is interrogated by a Mestizo (a mulatto) and a white Portuguese, but he refuses to answer any of their questions. They are especially interested in his telling them who his white contact is. They tell him that his wife and child are waiting outside, but that he will never see them unless he talks. He still refuses to speak, even when confronted by the informer who denounced him. The Portuguese policeman calls him a filthy nigger and beats him brutally.

Miguel, who has been searching out all the Movement's contacts in the region, reaches the village of Domingos and Maria, and finds the mother of Suminha, one of Domingos' friends. She tells him that her son is still in hiding and reveals that the arrested man is Domingos, "a good family man."

Later, in prison, Domingos is smuggled a note from his Movement contact, Timoteo. It tells him to have courage and to reveal nothing.

Maria again tries to see her husband in the political prison, but is told that they have no record of him. They tell her to try another prison.

Domingos, injured and clearly in pain, goes for his second interrogation. It will be his last--we see him being beaten, blow by blow, kick by kick.

Maria goes to the prison, where Zito sees her and correctly assumes that she is the prisoner's wife. He runs and tells the old man, and they go to help her.

Domingos, already dead, is brought back to his cell, where the other prisoners tenderly clean his wounds and sing over his body, "Let us never forget him."

Maria has been told about her husband's death. She stumbles outside the prison in grief, eventually breaking into wails of sorrow. She is immediately surrounded by other women as she hollers out that they have killed her husband. The old man and Zito help lead her away. She is taken to Mama Tete's, where all the women join in her grief, but also remind her that she still has her son to thing about.

At the Saturday night party, we see all the movement activists, dancing to lively music, eating, socializing. Chico, Miguel, Miguel's mother and sister, Mussunda, and even Timoteo and the white engineer Sylvester are there. Zito and the old man arrive. They tell the others that Domingos has been beaten to death. Mussunda, Zito, the old man, Chico, and Miguel stand in a circle and frieve, while the cheerful music plays in the background. Mussunda goes up on the stage, stops the music, and tells those gathered that Domingos Xavier has been killed. He asks that they continue their celebration, because in fact they have much to feel joyful about: Domingos behaved like a true nationalist and said nothing about the Movement. It is both a day of mourning and a day of joy, they say, for Domingos and his wife Maria. Today, says Mussunda, Xavier Domingos begins his real life, in the hearts of the Angolan people. The music and dancing resume.

At the oceanside near Domingos' village, a group of his fellow construction workers are told of Domingos' death. They are also urged to carry on his work, because activists in the countryside are needed to support the movement's efforts in the cities. They are also told that the Movement is planning to liberate the prisoners at the prison where Domingos had been held, the prison of Sambizanga, on February 4.


Analysis of Sambizanga

Maldoror has said that she tried to do three things in the film: capture a particular movement in the history of the Angolan liberation struggle; create a film that would educate Westerners to what was happening in Angola; and tell the story of a revolution from a point of view usually neglected in such films--from the perspective of a woman caught up in a situation she does not understand. Sambizanga can be judged a success on all three counts.

(1) Capturing the Moment. Maldoror deliberately set the film 11 years in the past, in 1961, a time when, as she says, "The political consciousness of the people has not yet matured." The MPLA had had some success organizing people in the cities, but had made only tentative in-roads in the rural sectors. The organization was relatively loose, and activists were only just being forced underground. The Portuguese would soon be expanding the secret police and sending in massive numbers of troops to check the growing nationalist movement. This was the final calm before the storm that would be unleashed by, among other events, the attempt to liberate the prison at Sambizanga. The film does a fine job of showing the confusion, the ignorance, the innocence, the almost laid-back quality of the organization in those years. It was a time when a Domingos Xavier could be killed and it would seem to be an almost incomprehensible act of repression. Within a few months, such murders would become commonplace. It has been estimated that betwee February 4 and the end of 1961, 50,000 Africans would die as a result of rioting, massacres, mass executions, and torture; about 1200 Portuguese were also said to have died within that period.

Buty by setting the story in 1961, the film is able to present us with a pure hero of the people--decent, unsophisticated, and unyielding--a martyr whose death gave the Angolan people the will to rise up in revolution. In this regard, the film strongly reminds us of Eisenstein's 1926 Soviet masterpiece, Potemkin, which also is set in a pre-revolutionary time (the 1905 abortive revolution in Russia), and uses the death of a worker-hero to galvanize sailors and townspeople into unified action.

It was also perhaps a look back to a better, more idealistic time for the MPLA, certainly for Mario de Andrade and those around him. In 1972, when the film was being made, the anti-colonialist struggle was going nowhere, and the MPLA was hurt by internal divisiveness. Andrade himself had been moved increasingly to the fringes of MPLA decision-making as a result of his differences with Augustinho Neto, the new leader. And the MPLA was only one of three nationalist groups, along with its rivals--Holden Roberto's FNLA and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA. Things were simpler in 1961; it was easier to make an inspirational story about that time.

(2) To Educate and Influence Westerners. Maldoror has said in an interview, "To make a film means to take a position, and when 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. . . . I make films so that people--no matter what race or color they are--can understand them."

It is probably impossible to determine just what effect the film did have on sensitizing Westerners to what was going on it Angola in 1972, garnering support for the liberation struggle in general and the MPLA position in particular. The film apparently received its widest distribution, not surprisingly, in the Eastern-bloc countries. It played and was critically received in the larger cities of the Western European countries, whose intellectuals tended to be pro-MPLA. In the United States it opened in New York at the 5th Avenue Cinema, was reviewed (generally quite favorably) by the major daily and weekly publications, and proceeded to play in other cities and in particular on college campuses.

Paradoxically, but typically, the film has almost certainly been seen more widely in the West than it has been in Africa. Maldoror was aware of this when she made the film, for she knew the limitations of distribution in Africa, whose distribution network at the time was controlled almost entirely by Europeans and Americans (as it continues to be).

(3) Woman's Point of View. If she had only finished a film, any film, Maldoror would have accomplished something extremely rare in Third World cinema at the time--a film made by a woman director. For that alone, Sambizanga would be memorable. But is there anything else about the film that shows the benefit of having had a woman creator, anything about the consequent style of the film that could serve as a model for future filmmakers?

It's always difficult to deal with questions of "women's sensibility," the "woman's touch," etc., when it comes to talking about film or about any art. It's too easy to slip into stereotypes and clichés. But we can talk about Maldoror as a feminist filmmaker, one who sees her politics, her art, and her feminism intertwined.

When I showed the film in a course on Women Film Directors, some in my class were at first surprised that the film showed so much of Domingos' story, that it is he and not Maria who has the revolutionary consciousness and becomes the martyr. Maria is a very traditional wife and mother. Though she and her husband obviously have a great deal of affection for each other, she sits apart from her husband at dinner and he keeps his political activities a secret from her. Maria is never seen to reflect on the events that have engulfed her and make the deicision to join the movement. Her story is just one of three strands that the film follows, the other two being her husband's journey to torture and death, and the story of the political activists who, like her, are searching for Domingos.

My answer was this. To show Maria changing overnight from being politically naive to becoming a political activist would be historically and socially inaccurate and unbelievable. Perhaps Maria will become an activist at some point, perhaps she will come to terms with her experience, but like most Angolans, particularly Angolan women, that's still in the future. Angolan women were eventually to play an extremely important role in the revolution. At the point, though, in terms of the film's politics, she functions more in terms of other people (mistreated by one group, supported by another), and as a symbol of the film's sympathies.

Still, that doesn't really answer the question. Why didn't Maldoror choose to set the story at a later date and focus on a woman activist? Had she done so, she would have lost the advantages of setting it in 1961 that I mentioned early. But she also would have missed something that I think is at the heart of what she is trying to do in Sambizanga; in this film, she is looking at the sources of the Angolan struggle, but she is also looking at the sources of the strength that would eventually bring them victory, if victory was to come: and that strength lies in the notion of community, a notion that allows one to synthesize traditional African values with Marxist notions of class solidarity. The ideal of community is what thematically ties together the three plot strands.

For Maldoror, in her own life and in this film, the family lies at the heart of the community. It is not a self-enclosed unit within a society, but a microcosm of--and an avenue for--the communal values that the ideal society must have.

Thus, we see the importance of the apparently unnecessary scenes of Domingos playing soccer with the village boys, or of the early scenes of Domingos and Maria together at home with their baby. Maldoror devotes 10 minutes to these scenes, nearly 1/10 of the film. These scenes are, to me, some of the most startling in the film, because they are so unexpected in a revolutionary film, yet seem so authentic and natural. When the Land Rover comes to break up that family, we are outraged. But more, these scenes have established the ideal for which Xavier--and the nationalist forces in general--is fighting. Xavier Domingos is a good Angolan because he is a good family man--the two go hand in hand. Society is an extended family. Tragically, his immediate family situation must be destroyed so that his extended family can be liberated.

The strength of the nationalist forces lies in the affection, the love, the caring that they have for one another. We see that again and again in the film. In the way that young Zito leads old Petelo around the city, despite the vulgar taunts of the other kids. In thae support that Mama Tete and her people give Maria when she finds herself alone in the strange metropolis. In the caring that we see when the prisoners bathe blood from Domingos' tortured body. In the Saturday night dance.

Maria is crucial to the film in the way that she both emboies and provokes the communal ideal. She is both victim and hope for the future.

But she is, also, a woman--a vital, beautiful, stubborn, strong woman, on screen for nearly half the film. Maldoror has said, "What I wanted to show in Sambizanga is the alone-ness of a woman and the time it takes to trudge. . . . 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." She is thus able to infuse her film with a unique perspective; rarely in African cinema is a woman so central a character in a film, even today. Without being a "woman's picture," Sambizanga is a feminist film.

Maldoror's feminism also emerges in minor moments that dig at traditional macho-ism. For example, young Chico is berated by an old man for "treating women like rags" because of his philandering. Men in a passing truck whistle and shout at Maria as she walks to town. A policeman tries to pick her up. (She is able to take care of herself in both situations.) These are just passing details, asides, but the implicit critiques add to the total texture of the film.

Maria may not yet have reached full political consciousness, but Maldoror, the creator of this film, certainly had.

Michael Dembrow

excerpted from a paper delivered in 1987

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