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HKRB ESSAYS: The Egalitarian Ethic in Contemporary Angolan Cinema

Steve Light discusses practices of solidarity and mourning in contemporary Angolan Cinema, arguing that such films offer an alternative to the selective mourning that dominates Western media.

A line of people–women, men, children; old and young; stoic and grieving…; a long line of people….

Each person awaits his or her turn to stand before a camera  to speak. They will have but a minute or less. It is Luanda, capital of Angola. They wait to speak about someone whom they are seeking, someone from whom they became separated because of the war. Each story is a tragedy. These little testimonies, these brief pleas, these brief “messages placed in a bottle tossed out to sea”, will be shown on television. Will the person who is sought-out see and hear the testimony of their loved one–their brother, their sister, their mother, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, cousin…..? Will they be able to return? Will these “messages” lead to reunions?  So many are dead. So many who are still alive will not hear the testimonies; they will not receive the message meant for them. Grievous separations will last a lifetime…

“…I wanted to write you a letter/ my love,/ that would recall the days in our haunts/ our nights lost in the long grass/ that would recall the shade falling on us from the plum trees/ the moon filtering through the endless palm trees/ that would recall the madness/ of our passion/ and the bitterness/ of our separation…”–Antonio Jacinto, “Letter from a Contract Worker”.[1]

The United States and South Africa did not want an independent Angola unwilling to give in to the domination of the United States’ geo-political and corporate-global projects and to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Nor did the States or South Africa want an independent Mozambique and an independent Namibia and so on and so forth, and consequently Angola and Mozambique were swept up into the destructive logic ever projecting from the aforementioned’s global will-to-domination .

Socio-political, socio-economic, socio-ethnic, and socio-geographic cleavages and antagonisms internal to Angola contributed to a twenty-seven year civil war that was underway so soon as independence from Portugal in 1975 took place, but the U.S. and South Africa had already been funding the major rival and anti-MPLA [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola] groups such as UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola] and the FNLA [National Front for the Liberation of Angola] prior to independence and immediately after independence South Africa invaded Angola in October of 1975 with U.S. support, an invasion that was but one moment in a renewed campaign lasting throughout the 1980s on the part of South Africa and the U.S. to destabilize countries in Southern Africa, a campaign that had among its results on the one hand 1.5 million deaths of which approximately 800,000 were children and on the other hand costs of 22 billion dollars to Angola, 12 billion to Mozambique, 7 billion to Zambia, and 3 billion to Namibia.

Naoko Haruta, Life #142: ‘Africa #6’, acrylic on canvas, 110 cm x 170 cm [43 x 67 inches]

Without U.S. and South African support UNITA’s war against the ruling MPLA would never have lasted as long as it did,and had not Cuba intervened on the side of the MPLA, doubtless, South Africa’s invasion would almost certainly have proved successful. Cuba’s Operacion Carlota (the named derived from a revolt against slavery in Cuba in 1843), undertaken in November of 1975 when Angola asked Cuba for military aid, had as its immediate result the prevention of South Africa from seizing Luanda in the fall of 1975, a seizure that would have enabled the U.S. and South Africa to install their own regime in Angola. Subsequently, the Cuban brigades were again decisive in preventing a renewed South African offensive from seizing Cuito Caunavale in November of 1987. The Cuban brigades together with Angolan forces and a smaller contingent from Namibia’s SWAPO [South West African Peoples Organization] blunted and then defeated the South African push towards Cuito Caunavale  in what could be likened to a Stalingrad defense and victory. From this point on the South Africans – by virtue of successive defeats in battles in June of 1988 at Calueque and Tchipia – were forced to withdraw from Angola. Nevertheless, the civil war continued periodically for another 15 years.

Concomitantly would the MPLA leadership and political structures have been more emancipatory, more imbued with socio-political and socio-economic equity, justice, and egalitarianism and would they have evaded authoritarianism, clientalism, and aggrandizement had there been no civil war, had there been no U.S./South African invasion and destabilization campaign? That seems definitional albeit that the trajectories chosen by the ruling elite in accordance with its ideological orthodoxies would probably not have been structured too differently, yet,  nonetheless there would have at been, at least for a time, the kind of socio-political space available for possible transformational movements involving the greater populace. Furthermore, the war was on the part of the U.S. and South Africa a gratuitous war and certainly because the U.S. had absolutely nothing to gain other than in the perpetuation of a Cold War reflex that was simply a function of social imperialism which seeks to bolster domestic rule and domination by  presenting to the population fictionalized and manufactured external dangers. Moreover, because the actual gains the U.S. sought to derive, access to and domination of Angolan oil and mineral wealth, etc. etc. could have been gained by the U.S. simply within the framework of the already existing and U.S. dominated global economic structure of development/underdevelopment and economico-systemic imperatives.

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There is a scene in the director Zeze Gamboa’s 2004 film, O Heroi (The Hero)[2], exactly like the one described above: a line of people. This scene evokes the tragic duration of the Angolan “post-war,”  because the war continues to be perpetrated–even after its conclusion–against the daily life of the populace. The dislocation, the splintering asunder of lives by war, by terror, by the violence exercised by reigning global power against populaces everywhere, this is the everyday of populations across many parts of the planet.  In Korea families remain asunder to this day, six decades after the “conclusion” of the Korean war.  In Angola, there are probably more as yet unexploded land mines than anywhere else.  And those who suffer this violence are principally women and children.

In London, after the tube bombings in 2005 one could see a Nigerian woman on television grieving for her missing son, her son almost certainly already dead. She was on all the television screens in many countries. Humanity could grieve with and for her. But those waiting patiently on that line, on that queue, in Luanda, they are for the most part absent from the consciousness of those in the metropoles. They are not on television screens. Nor for that matter are Nigerian women in Nigeria who have lost sons or daughters to various forms of violence.  Or mothers in South Chicago or South Los Angeles or in …or in…or in….In the privileged countries we will be presented the missing, the lost,  the dead. We will feel in heartfelt ways the grief of the anguished, the agonizing mother in London and of others and increasingly more and more others. But the mothers and fathers of Luanda, the sisters and brothers, the wives and husbands, the sons and daughters….No depiction is given of their agonies, their ineradicable, their imperishable, their inconsolable grief.

To establish a hierarchy of suffering, to establish a privilege of suffering and a privilege of those for whom we should feel sympathy and commiseration, to say that the suffering of these people is worth more than the suffering of those people is a form of violence committed against those whose suffering and loss are blotted out, made non-existent. This is an obvious point that has even become a platitude. It is in the ken and agreement of everyone if each and all would stop to reflect for but a moment. But, alas, such universalist understanding is not practiced near enough. “We are all….” is a slogan in the West.  But the nominative in use is always restrictive. We do not hear exclamations such as, in this instance, i.e. “We are all Luandans”, “We are all Angolans….”, etc. etc. etc.   This circumstance, this fact, this hierarchy must be subjected to criticism and replaced with an egalitarian and equitable ethos of mourning and solidarity.  If our sympathy is not for all those who perish then it is a much too reduced, a much too imperfect sympathy, and in certain ways, therefore, not sympathy at all. Selective mourning, self-enclosed mourning, can all too easily become subject to unilateral use and in instances manipulation.

The name Auschwitz in all its meanings and significations is now the proper name, the eponymous name for genocide, that name which signifies the logical and empirical result of racial hatred. But if we are to say the name, “Auschwitz”, then we must make sure that this name says all that it must encompass, because this name must also say the name of Leopold’s Congo, of the genocidal violence against the Tutsis, against the Armenians, against the Hereros in Southwest Africa (Namibia) in l903, etc. etc. etc.  This name, Auschwitz, if it is to be uttered in its extensive and intensive truth, must bring about the recognition that it must name all the names, the names of all those disappeared and perished everywhere whether in the gulags of Stalinist terror and purge or in the Nazi death camps, the names of all the massacred Cambodians, all the Indonesians massacred in 1965, the massacred East Timorese, Vietnamese, etc. etc. And if saying this name, Auschwitz, is not also to say all the  names and to speak of all the perished, in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, etc., in Mississippi, Alabama, Attica, etc. , of those in the aftermath of the Spanish and Greek Civil Wars, in the aftermath of the Hungarian rising in l956, of those in all the places of massive colonialist violence, the Philippines, Madagascar, Algeria, etc. etc….., of all those of the First Nations in the Americas, of the Middle Passage and of all those in the centuries’ long hemispheric trans-Atlantic slave trade, slave system, and slave economy–, if saying the name Auschwitz is not to speak of all these instances and all these names, and all the others that could be listed here, then this limited kind of saying, this exclusivist kind of saying will do injustice not just to the unnamed, but also–precisely–to all those who perished in Auschwitz, in Birkenau, in Treblinka, Belzec, Majdenak, Sobibor, Dachau….

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Zeze Gamboa’s O Heroi never found the proper kind of distribution nor a proper, abundant, and trans-global public. This film remains like a message in a bottle thrown out to sea–and never received. In the U.S. the film was scarcely shown beyond its screening at the 2005 Los Angeles Pan African film festival. But already in its opening scene this film was able to give a very admirable kind of just weight to all things, was able to find that kind of cinematic bearing that is the most elusive of all cinematic–and artistic–bearings, the one in which the resounding ‘No!’ of protest entwines without remainder within the resounding ‘Yes!’ at once of art and politics in those instantiations where we find all the beautiful durations of generosity

The main protagonist of O Heroi is a veteran of the Angolan war who has lost a leg.  He was a sergeant in the government army fighting the UNITA militia. For two years he has been trying to obtain a prosthetic limb. In an early scene he receives it, is fitted with it, and does his training and rehabilitation. But he cannot find employment as the film unfolds his post-prosthetic life. Lives intersect with his: a bar dancer/prostitute who is unkind to him; another bar dancer/prostitute with whom he begins a romantic friendship; a Portuguese-Angolan school teacher who is committed to social justice (and her ex-boyfriend, a Portuguese-Angolan from a privileged family who has returned from studies in the States and whom this teacher enlists to arrange with the government a radio program publicizing the difficulties of returning veterans); a grandmother and her grandson, a young orphan boy who ends up with the prosthetic limb of the soldier (stolen by other youths who sell it to a pawn broker), but who ends up returning it to the soldier when the soldier’s story is heard over the radio due to the intervention of the aforementioned school teacher (who is also the orphaned boy’s teacher in school). The final scene depicts the veteran, now having received back his prosthetic limb and having obtained work as a driver, taking the young boy for a drive on a Luanda boulevard that skirts the coastline of the city. An up-tempo tune emanates from the car radio as the camera pans outward to Luanda’s coast and beaches and then upward in a concluding aerial panorama of Luanda and its outlying region.

Luanda! What do we know of it?  Dominant history and histories in the West, in the West’s 20th Century and contemporary modernities, in its cinematic and artistic modernities, have hidden Luanda from us as they have hidden Lusophone Africa in ways more emphatic than they have hidden other African artistic, political, and existential modernities.

“…Luanda, you are like a white seagull/ on the ocean crest–/ bright streets under the white sun/ flight of green palm trees…”–Ngudia Wendel, “We Shall Return, Luanda”.[3]

Yes, everyday life reasserts itself with intense persistence. It is the law of everyday life everywhere. Alas and again this film which should be seen will not be seen nearly enough. Its depiction of that line of people waiting to speak of the lost, the missing, the separated was not meant immediately by Zeze Gamboa as a protest, but simply as the presentation of an everyday fact and event.  Yet, this depiction in a marvelous artistic union of affective specificity and socio-existential resonance carries a beautiful protest against the specific policies of global power that have led to the necessity of this line, this queue.   And it unveils in an unadorned and self-contained vehemence the too common self-absorption of those in more privileged countries who grieve for their own, but, alas, not for those elsewhere, and who, in this, unwittingly or wittingly, too often lend up their grief to become the malleable object of power.

O Heroi embodies a cinematic diction and language in which resounds a very beautiful kind of intersubjective vibrato, the kind of cinematic diction which knows how to sound within us as our own existential conviviality. Without dogmatism and without didactic or cinematic rigidity this film found an eloquence commensurate with an artistic and epochal readiness and magnanimity.  And in this it found a wonderful means to voice the need and the necessity for that kind of socio-political and socio-economic equity without which any and all social orders remain mired  in domination and devastation and without which any and all mourning for those who have fallen and perished will be diminished in the honor and justice it seeks to render, which is to say in relation to those of one’s own.  And certainly we could say that the this call for equity surely must be one among the insistent and fervent calls of precisely the fallen themselves,  an insistent and fervent imperative of the perished upon all of us.


NOTES

  1. Ulli Beier and Gerald Moore, ed. The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (London: Penguin, 1998).
  1. O Heroi [The Hero], Zeze Gamboa, director; Carla Baptista, Pierre-Marie Goulet,
    Fernando Vendreil, screen writers; Fernando Vendreil, producer; Makena Diop, Milton ‘Santo’ Coelho, Maria Ceica, Patricia Bull, Neuza Borges, cast principals; [Angola/Portugal/French production], 97 minutes. 2004.
  1. Beier and Moore, op cit.

Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset—and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins—is also a philosopher and poet.

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