English Title: Sambizanga
Country of Origin: : Angola, France, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)
Director: Sarah Maldoror
Screenplay: Maurice Pons, Elisa Andrade, Sarah Maldoror , Claude Agostini
Art Director: Sarah Maldoror
Runtime: 102 minutes
Genre: Drama, Historical docufiction
Starring/Cast: Manuel Videira, Lopes Rodrigues, Jean M’Vondo, Benoît Moutsila, Henriette Meya, Domingos de Oliveira, Elisa Andrade, Dino Abelino, Ana Wilson
Volume: African / Nigerian
Sambizanga, Sarah Maldoror’s best known film, film is based on Luandino Vieira’s novella (La vraie vie de Domingos Xavier, 1978) which chronicles the 1961 uprising against Portuguese domination in colonial Angola. Maldoror changed the title, however, into Sambizanga, the latter being the neighbourhood in Luanda where the Portuguese prison is situated, the same prison where Domingos was tortured and eventually, murdered by the Portuguese secret police. The film recounts the life and death of Domingos Xavier, a construction worker who lives in a coastal village. He is married to Maria and they have a baby named Bastido. They are in bed when the secret police comes into the room, ties up Domingos and drives him away in a car. The next phase of the film shows Maria leaving the village with her baby Bastido on her back to undertake the long trek to the city in search of her husband. Upon arriving in the town closest to her village, she heads directly to the Administration building where she is told by an official that her husband has allegedly participated in anticolonial activities and is being held in a prison in Luanda. After wiping her tears, Maria boards a bus and heads for Luanda where she tries unsuccessfully to see her husband but the police tell her that Domingos is not a political prisoner. The film ends with a shot back to Domingos’ village where his fellow workers learn that he was killed.
Sambizanga won the Palme d’or (Gold Palm) at the 1972 Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia. Maldoror’s film treats the theme of the liberation war in the Portuguese colony of Angola. The narrative implies that the main character’s misfortunes and death are due to his loyalty. Domingos is tortured in prison for refusing to provide the name of a key member of the liberation struggle. Maldoror’s film is highly political and certainly historical. A third dimension is the feminist touch that Maldoror embeds within the character of Maria, Domingos’s wife. Even though fiction has the upper hand in the film, the director subtly narrates the history of the liberation movement under the auspices of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). There were other major actors in the struggle such as Jonas Savimbi and Roberto Holden. The MPLA movement was headed by the poet Agostino Neto, the future president of independent Angola in 1975. The movement built its own network of informants and spies, in addition to levying its own army. Likewise, in the film, people of all ages and professions are included in the liberation movement. When Domingos is brought to Luanda heading for the prison, a young boy named Zito sees him and alerts Petelo, an old nationalist who contacts Chico the postman and an active member of the movement. Chico decides to conduct his own investigation and thanks to Miguel’s help, the leader Mussunda hears about Domingos’s capture and imprisonment.
The character of Mussunda is the emblematic selfless figure that one finds in liberation movements. He is a tailor by profession but he is also a teacher as he is seen in a scene teaching a class of new recruits, telling them about the philosophy, aims, and doctrine of the liberation movement. At this juncture, Maldoror dissects the colonial society as set up by the colonizer into ‘a type of creolized society.’ Obviously, at the top reigns the white Portuguese; in the middle there is the mulatto (Mestizo); and at the bottom comes the black man. Domingos is interrogated by a mulatto policeman. In effect, the mulatto—the product of miscegenation between white males and black women— is the go-between, the intermediary between Whites and Blacks.
The plot of the film becomes even more complicated for, in addition to racial issues, Maldoror brings into the fray class issues as Mussunda emphatically argues that the society should not be perceived in terms of race (white, mulatto, or black) but of the divide between the poor and the rich. Perhaps, here, Maldoror’s Marxist, Leftist, and anti-colonialist views act as a sub-text. To any rule there is an exception and Sylvester represents that exception for he is a white engineer employed in the same company as Domingos yet he is an anti-colonialist and a sympathizer to the nationalist cause and liberation movement.
The character of Maria is more politicized in Maldoror’s film than in Vieira’s novel. She is fighting for the truth. She leaves the village in search of her husband. She is often rudely treated even though, on a few occasions, she finds a sympathetic ear. She finally arrives at the prison where her husband is detained. When she hears that Domingos died under torture, Maria screams and cries but she is comforted by Zito and Petelo. Her pain is also alleviated by other women who tell her that Domingos did not die in vain and he is also survived by a son: the child should give her the courage to soldier on. In the character of Maria, Maldoror highlights the condition of women in a colonial society and the upshot of the director’s argument is that women are doubly oppressed: first, as women and, then, as colonized subjects.
Sambizanga ends with muted happiness and sadness, grief and joy, mourning and the celebration of life. A party is organized where all the activists are assembled: Zito, Miguel and his mother, Chico, Sylvester, Petelo. Of course, Maria is present. Music is played and those present are eating and dancing. Mussunda gives a eulogy in which he states that Domingos was killed yet he died as a hero and for a cause, namely the liberation of his country. People will never forget him. Life must go on.