NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

09/09/2021

Sambizanga, newly and immaculately restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation, is a movie that will probably be new to many people. For anyone who cares about the cinema, for anyone who wants to make cinema, it is as essential to know well as Sunrise or Vertigo or 2001. It is “noteworthy” because it is the very first African feature directed by a woman, Sarah Maldoror, and it is a touchstone in surveys of political and revolutionary cinema. But those are official historic and academic categories that are worlds away from the immediate experience of the film itself, which is totalizing: it comes at the viewer from all directions at once. It is grounded in life as lived, and every single scene develops with layer upon layer of intimate homebound gestural and visual detail—the preparation of food, the calming of a baby resisting sleep, the baiting of a fishhook all become living events. And the story of dueling searches for an Angolan freedom fighter during the very early days of the resistance who’s been seized from his home unfolds by way of constant cross-cutting that operates at the pace of the characters, who must walk everywhere to share news and messages: on the one hand, a lifelike tension is built; on the other hand, a portrait of a community at a particular moment in time is created. And the cross-cutting also becomes a matter of rhythm: like all great films, Sambizanga has a heartbeat. And it constantly pulses with beauty. It is an experience of colors and textures, visual and sonic. The wife’s long journey with her baby on her back is an event—visually, musically, dramatically—as is the often-cited scene where a tailor who works in the movement speaks a simple truth while he cuts fabric: “There are no whites, neither mulattos nor blacks. Only the rich and the poor. The rich are the poor’s enemies, they see to it that the poor stay poor.” The speech is extremely quotable and Maldoror would echo the sentiment in public (“The color of a person’s skin is of no interest to me,” she said in a 1991 interview, and added: “For me, there are only the exploiters and the exploited, that’s all”), but it only comes fully alive as part of the whole. The political, the dramatic and the aesthetic are not just interwoven in Sambizanga—they are one in the same.

A few words about Sarah Maldoror, a remarkable artist. She was born in France in 1929 with the family name Ducados, and she later named herself after the hero of the Comte de Lautréamont’s novel Les Chants de Maldoror. Like the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, she began in theatre. When she was in her 20s she co-founded Les Griots, the first all-black theatre company in France. She was drawn to the cinema by her first viewing of Battleship Potemkin, and she studied film at VGIK in Moscow alongside Ousmane Sembène (they would be followed later by Souleymane Cissé and Abderrahmane Sissako). Maldoror went to live in Algeria during the crucial years after the eight-year war for independence, and she worked as an assistant to William Klein and Gillo Pontecorvo—on The Battle of Algiers—before embarking on her first short, Monangambeee, co-written by her husband Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade, one of the key figures in the Angolan liberation movement. The first feature she actually shot, Guns for Banta, was financed by the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front), whose representatives seized the film from the editing room because Maldoror was driving the focus toward the women’s point of view—“In the end, wars only work when women take part—they don’t have to hold a bazooka but they have to be present” she later said as she reflected on the experience, which ended with her leaving Algeria. Sambizanga, an adaptation of José Luandino Vieira’s 1961 novel The Real Life of Domingos Xavier (also co-written by Andrade), was shot in forty days with a cast largely comprised of Angolan militants. It was impossible to work in Angola at the time, so the film was shot in the neighboring Congo. Sambizanga was released to considerable international acclaim (it was picked up for distribution here by New Yorker Films and favorably reviewed in the then all-powerful New York Times), but for all African and Africa-based filmmakers the international acclaim is bittersweet at best. Maldoror, like Sembène, like Cissé and Sissako, like Safi Faye and Mati Diop, made her films “first of all for Africans, for African people, those who know what Africa is and those who don’t know, although they think they do.” Making the films was only one step—getting them shown on a grand scale was another matter entirely.

“African women must be everywhere,” said Maldoror, who passed away in March of 2020 at the age of 90, from COVID. “They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems.” Like Agnès Varda, she had no patience for empty gestures or half-measures. She made 42 films in all, shorts and features and documentaries, films of all shapes and sizes and orientations. She made her last public appearance in May of 2019, at retrospectives of her work in Spain, and she said something so simple, direct and true that it takes my breath away: “Education doesn't begin with a book, but rather with an image. Children experience cinema and that makes them dream. To help them, we need to get back to poetry, theater and cinema…

Children must, from a very young age, go to the movies and read poetry, to build a better world.”

- Kent Jones

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SAMBIZANGA (Angola/France, 1972, d. Sarah Maldoror)
Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna at L’Image Retrouvée in association with Éditions René Chateau and the family of Sarah Maldoror. Funding provided by Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.

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