April 10, 2007
Something of a cross between an autobiographical road trip and a personal essay on the untold, residual legacy of Angola's turbulent twentieth century history as the country continues to struggle to recover from Portuguese colonization and a protracted civil war, Abderrahmane Sissako's Rostov-Luanda is an understated, yet pensive and illuminating rumination on the pervasive state of political and economic (and moral) stagnation that continues to shape the collective psyche of modern day African countries. A well worn, decades old class photograph composed of multi-ethnic students studying abroad in Soviet-era Moscow that has been obtained from a Russian friend provides the indeterminate, organic roadmap for Sissako's cross-country journey into the sublime, yet desolate landscape of postwar Angola. Recalling his shared hopes and youthful idealism for the cultural resurgence of a post-colonial African continent with fellow African student Alfonso Baribanga, Sissako embarks on a trip to his colleague's homeland in the aftermath of a devastating, Cold War-fueled, civil war. Encountering a series of strangers from the country's rich and diverse spectrum of ethnic and economic social strata who collectively define the face of modern Angola, Sissako's informal interviews with local residents inevitably take on the form of personal reflections and human testimonies that illustrate the country's deeply factional (and fractured) contemporary history even as it successfully cultivated a color blind, heterogeneous, assimilated society between Portuguese settlers and indigenous people (enabling a literal cultural interrogation that anticipates Khalo Matabane's own "road movie" approach to capturing the sentimental landscape of post-apartheid South Africa in Story of a Beautiful Country) - a resigned intellectual and former student radical who punctuates the intrinsic irony of her former comrades' patriotism and impassioned politics by noting their emigration from the country (a comment that also alludes to Africa's chronic "brain drain" of highly skilled and well educated workers); a gregarious barfly who watches the world go by peripherally from an outdoor bench near the entrance of Biker's, Luanda's most popular bar and tourist hotspot, having been thrown out for disorderly conduct; an orphan who once preferred to survive in the streets, but is now content to live with his uncle and attend school; a taxi driver who once received a house and automobile from his Portuguese benefactor, then gave away his legacy in the uncertainty of civil war; a mixed race businessman who fled to Portugal during the war and has now returned in order to contribute to its rebuilding; a genial patriarch of a large, extended family who is deeply moved by Sissako's interest in their humble stories, and sees the filmmaker's arrival as a greater sign towards endowing a voice to the marginalized; an elderly couple, originally immigrating from Brazil in order to seek out opportunities in the construction of their town's infrastructure, recounts the painful decision to send their children abroad during the war, and their own determination to remain in their beloved adopted village despite personal risk. But perhaps the most symbolic testimony of the country's resilience is reflected in an elderly woman's humorous account of her friends and family's mistaken belief that, often seen sitting on the front porch of her house, she must have been maimed by a landmine (an all too common scenario that is also depicted in Zézé Gamboa's The Hero) before subverting their expectation and breaking out into her fancy footwork. Far from a defeated, impoverished nation, what inevitably emerges from Sissako's reverent and compassionate gaze is a people ennobled by struggle, determined to rise from the ashes of war and colonialism through tolerance, hard work, resilience, and community.