Opening Angola’s past to public debate
The stories of those who fought on the frontlines, were imprisoned, or wanted to establish real democracy after independence in Angola.
Angola’s recent history is beset with conflict. Twenty-seven years of civil war (1975-2002) followed by thirteen years of anti-colonial war (1961-1974). Real political differences fueled these wars, compounded by foreign intervention and shifting control over precious natural resources that altered the calculus of conflict. The Luena Peace Accords of 2002 between the governing MPLA and the rebel UNITA movement brought an unsteady peace without reconciliation and ushered in an oil boom (one that has faltered in the past two years).
The socialist ethos of Angola’s First Republic (1975-1992), and the civil war, kept the state focused on the horizon. As the Popular Republic of Angola, the ruling MPLA produced five-year plans and annual slogans to motivate production and bolster morale under difficult economic conditions. Independence meant that the miseries of colonialism were tidily prologued, and energies targeted present and future development. The 2002 “peace without reconciliation” model opted for a similar perspective: let the oil boom keep Angolan sights on new high rises to distract from body counts, betrayals and disappointments.
Even as the Angolan leadership is relentless in its future orientation, other Angolans have taken up the peace to dig into the past. The year 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of Angolan Independence. The Associação Tchiweka de Documentação (Tchiweka Association for Documentation –Tchiweka was the nom de guerre of Lúcio Lara) and Geração 80 (80s Generation, in this case: Mário Bastos, Jorge Cohen, Kamy Lara, and Tchiloia Lara) launched the film Independência.
This film is the result of six years of work by a team of media producers and an historical consultant, Dr. Maria de Conceição Neto, all of them associated directly or indirectly with the MPLA, and headed up by Paulo Lara, a former guerrilla fighter, general in the Angolan Armed Forces, and the son of Lúcio Lara (a founding member of the MPLA and a key figure in Angola’s independence struggle). They produced not only a film, but also more than 1,000 hours of interviews with more than 600 participants of the armed struggle for Angola’s independence. This was not just a film, but a project: Project Angola – Pathways to Independence. And the project is a signal achievement, the film a door to conversations about this critical period in Angola’s past.
Independência screened in Luanda, Malange, Benguela, and Viana beginning in late 2015 and throughout 2016. I saw it Luanda and Lisbon. Typically, Bastos and some of the research and production crew were present at screenings. The idea being that the film is an invitation to dialogue, not the last word on independence.
Film director Mário Bastos explains that the film is but one of many that have emerged from this vast new archive. It is one that speaks from the point of view of participants, but that is pitched to an audience of those, like Bastos, born after 1975. In this sense, the film is an intergenerational act of collective story-telling and history making. Unlike the memories recounted in homes, at Saturday afternoon funges, the film is systematic in piecing together the fragments of memory with archival documents and footage. It begins with memories of the late colonial period, the early days of clandestine organizing, and then moves to the development of the different movements and the armed struggle in exile and in the Angolan interior.
Independência brings together the stories of those who fought on the frontlines, those who were imprisoned (and the stories of the prisons themselves, rarely recounted), and those who were involved in clandestine support for the movements. It shines when it shows us small moments of humanity: Rodeth Gil recounting her fear of swimming. Or for tackling sticky historical questions of memory, like the story of a brutal beating of a prisoner at Missombo prison camp, nightmarishly etched in prisoners’ memories but without documentary record. Importantly, the film reminds us of the fear with which people lived under the colonial regime. Independência also expands the cast of characters typically associated with the struggle for independence. It has an equalizing force, showing “Kiluanji,” a fabled soldier and UNITA general Samuel Chiwale, recounting their memories and experiences alongside Augusto Loth, a nurse, largely unknown to the average Angolan.
The film, and its beautiful DVD version (which includes a short film on memory and another on the making of the film), attend to the past’s difference, its pastness. Bastos’s camera plays with materiality, the flatness of documents, their capacity to betray, the noble quietness of photos, and the digital/analog interface. As someone who has spent many hours with PIDE (Portuguese secret police) documents and many hours conducting interviews, tangling with the complications of reminiscence and of the archival fragment, I appreciated the way the film uses memory to, literally sometimes, re-write the past and contest its interested traces.
Noted Angolan musician Victor Gama crafted a soundtrack that is poignant and historically precise. The film is narrated by writer and musician Kalaf Epalanga whose bass-toned voice but straightforward delivery strike just the right tone for my ear. Elizângela Rita does the narration for Deolinda Rodrigues, one of the five heroines killed in 1969 at the hands of the FNLA after being trained by Cuban soldiers and led into Angola by “Ingo” Vieira Lopes for a reconnaissance mission. Deolinda’s diaries were posthumously published in the early 2000 and offer rich, reflective material and an insider´s critique of the MPLA and its masculine politics.
The idea to screen the film in various locales within Angola as well as where its diasporas live and congregate, is its great promise. The film has its limitations too. One friend thought Mário Pinto de Andrade’s role in the founding of the MPLA had been underplayed (I was happy it was mentioned at all); another thought Viriato de Cruz got short shrift. Others may think that Jonas Savimbi (an ally of the U.S. and Apartheid South Africa) and Holden Roberto (close to neighboring Zaire’s Mobutu) don’t get their due. Some viewers will dispute the experience of particular participants. But the film, and, more significantly, the Project, have left an open invitation to conversation and to greater engagement with this critical moment in Angola’s past – one in which even as there was political division, there was also agreement on the desire for independence. Like the recent spate of books on the 27 de Maio (the massacre of MPLA dissidents in 1977), they have re-opened the past to public debate and not just whispers and conversations between friends.
- Independencia will screen at the Pan-African Film Festival in L.A. in February 2017.