“Sambizanga” reserves some surprises. The first is in the pseudonym of the director: Sarah Maldoror. The name of Lautréamont’s prose poem, the cursed of the damned, inspires respect: it is not to be used lightly. But this is how Sarah Ducados, a black woman of French nationality, signed her works.
And, judging by this 1972 film (which arrives at Ecospeaker in a duly restored version), it doesn’t misuse the pseudonym. Married to the Angolan poet and essayist Mário Pinto de Andrade, she dedicated this film to the struggle for the independence of the African country.
It was made in 1972, two years before the Carnation Revolution overthrew Salazarism and ended the Portuguese colonial adventure in Africa. There she deals with Domingos Xavier (Domingos de Oliveira), a tractor driver kidnapped by Pide, the violent Lusitanian political police at the time. Her wife, Maria (Elisa Andrade) begins a pilgrimage in search of her husband, walking from the village where they live to Luanda, the capital.
This summary synopsis already spells out what a good part of the work is: a militant film characteristic of the early years that followed May 68. In part, that’s what it is. The filmmaker’s good taste is noteworthy, as we know how many films are lost because of the way they show torture, for example. Here we know how much certain characters are tortured, but Maldoror never makes a spectacle of it, although he makes it very clear that torture was part of the Pide’s usages and customs.
But the militant aspect of the film is also a pretext for Maldoror to open the doors of Angola to his spectators. Not a tourist Angola, but as experienced by those who lived there at that time. So, right away we are introduced to the mud house where people like Domingos and his family live.
But there are also the faces that alternate on the canvas, the heavy work (very heavy), the aftermath of the ruinous colonial administration that are left over here and there. Not only that: we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a fair, or a square in the center of Luanda. The landscapes are transformed: they can bring a modern capital or the mountains of the country.
They can, and it is perhaps best, show a street with its shops that look like Lisbon, but those who pass by are barefoot. Which doesn’t stop those passers-by from showing off those beautiful African cloths (the Angolan version is more discreet than other places, but the color combination is just as rich). Or workers to show their hat-covered faces.
“Sambizanga” is, in short, a modest film about modest people, their ways of eating, walking, dressing and, above all, dedicating themselves to others. In what appears on the screen as evidence (Maria and her search for her husband) or dissimulation (the militancy). Yes, because we see practically nothing of meetings, preparation of actions and everything else that might relate to an independence movement. Just a party, at the end of the movie. The secrecy affects the film itself: no proselytizing, rare outward signs of revolt. The war, in the film at least, is secret.
This is another surprise and another virtue: we work with a hypermodest production without losing for a moment the sense of a rebellion that spreads surreptitiously (and that would invade the Portuguese colonial army). There is no exhortation to fight (although there is a wail at the very end). Every second, however, this struggle makes itself felt.
Because a militant film can also be like this: showing the mood of the militants, much more than exposing their essentially obvious ideas (it is a nationalist movement), how their struggle takes place, much more than demagoguery in around her.
The virtues of Sarah Maldoror’s film are best shown when we note that, 50 years later, they have not lost relevance: they remain a document of a happy struggle, because successful.