Cinema and the Anticolonial Liberation Struggles: Sambizanga

Sambizanga (1972) dir. Sarah Maldoror
Sambizanga (1972) dir. Sarah Maldoror

This series of screenings and talks explore the political projects of anticolonial struggles and how cinema shapes political events. The series focuses on African liberation movements, solidarities across borders in America and Asia, and how the future of liberation movements were imagined during the Cold War.

This programme is co-curated with Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc.

Sambizanga (1972) dir. Sarah Maldoror, 1h 42min, 16mm

Set in 1961 at the onset of the Angolan War of Independence, Sambizanga follows the struggles of Angolan militants involved with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), an anti-colonial political movement of which Maldoror's husband, Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade, was a leader. The film is based on the novella A vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier ("The Real Life of Domingos Xavier") by Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira.

Sambizanga is the name of the working-class neighbourhood in Luanda where a Portuguese prison was located to which many Angolan militants were taken to be tortured and killed.On February 4, 1961, this prison was attacked by MPLA forces

The film begins with the arrest of Angolan revolutionary Domingos Xavier by Portuguese colonial officials. Xavier is taken to the prison in Sambizanga where he is at risk of being tortured to death for not giving the Portuguese the names of his fellow dissidents. The film follows Xavier's wife, Maria, who searches from jail to jail trying to discover what has become of her husband.

Sarah Maldoror was born in 1939 in Candou, France. A Guadeloupean of African descent, she is respectfully regarded as the matriarch of African cinema (she was the first woman of color to make a feature film). For her, filmmaking was a weapon for struggle and liberation from the very beginning of her experiences in cinema. Though before embarking on a career in filmmaking she co-founded the theatre group Compagnie d’Art Dramatique des Griots in Paris in 1956. She left the company in the early 1960s to study cinema in the Soviet Union at VGIK in Moscow on a scholarship—there she met Ousmane Sembène who was also studying at the time. Maldoror worked both as an assistant director and a director in Paris, Martinique, and Portuguese-speaking African countries. After residing briefly in Morocco in 1963, she went to Algeria to work as Gillo Pontecorvo’s assistant on the 1966 classic film, The Battle of Algiers, the prototype for all mainstream political cinema of the 1970s. Her 1968 debut film Monagambée, which examines torture techniques used by the French in the Algerian war, was selected for the Quinzaine des réalisateurs/Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1971. The following year she made her emblematic œuvre, Sambizanga, which relates a woman’s experience during the Angola liberation struggle. The film shared the prestigious Tanit d’Or prize at the Carthage Film Festival that same year. Pioneer, trailblazer, mentor, Sarah Maldoror had this to say in an interview with Jadot Sezirahiga: “African women must be everywhere. 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”.

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