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April 10, 2007

Rostov-Luanda, 1997

rostov_luanda.gifSomething 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.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 10, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Abderrahmane Sissako, New York African Film Festival


Thanks for posting this review; this is a film high on my wish list, but unfortunately I couldn't make the trip to NY last week. I'd love to see it on DVD, though it seems a relatively unlikely prospect even if Waiting for Happiness is on the verge of release.

Posted by: Gareth on Apr 16, 2007 1:26 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Gareth, I scheduled my trip specifically to catch this and the Nacro shorts, and they were definitely worth it. If you have access to a university library, apparently the video is available for institutional pricing from California Newsreel. There's definitely an undercurrent of Waiting for Happiness in this film too, it's quite subtle.

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 16, 2007 6:25 PM | Permalink

Thanks for that tip: I hadn't previously noticed it on the CN website, and will have to see if I can persuade the university where I work to invest! I liked Waiting for Happiness a lot, but Life on Earth still remains the highlight for me; I can watch it over and over. I saw the Nacro shorts at a festival in 2001 and they blew me away; I'm seeing her at the Harvard Film Archive this week, with The Night of Truth, and I can't wait!

Posted by: Gareth on Apr 16, 2007 11:03 PM | Permalink

Hopefully, Nacro will get more Q&A time at HFA than she did at NYAFF. The films were scheduled so close together that there were never more than 4-5 questions before people would be scuttled out for the next screening.

Speaking of which, the Rostov-Luanda screening was coupled with a Soviet-era newsreel archive on Frelimo, and the filmmaker who shot it appropriately described the style as a propaganda film for the then Soviet Union's involvement in the Angolan Civil War, and there were two people who really bristled that he described the film that way, because it was actually filmed from a sympathetic, anti-imperialist, humanist point of view. They ended up monopolizing/derailing the entire Q&A because they only know what propaganda is through negative connotation, not as an aesthetic, and kept arguing that any information on that period in history is valid because there's so little documentation (which I'm sure we all agree with, but that doesn't mean that we also shouldn't watch the film critically knowing in what context it was produced - it was not an "objective" news footage). Suffice it to say, we didn't get around to the Sissako film before the clear out. >:(

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 17, 2007 7:15 PM | Permalink

I can't make the comparison, but everyone who wished to ask a question at the HFA got a shot, and her answers were generally illuminating (and sometimes quite amusing). They threw in a screening of Un Certain matin, which I had seen before, and her comments on that film were also interesting. Her next project sounds much more like what I expected she would turn to for her first feature - more fool me for typecasting her, although I wasn't entirely wrong in the end!

I managed to see Rostov-Luanda during the week once you pointed out that it was on VHS, so thanks again for the tip; I must post about it later today. It's a pity you didn't get a chance to hear about it (the HFA Q&A, thankfully, was peopled by questioners with snappy queries).

Posted by: Gareth on Apr 27, 2007 2:39 PM | Permalink

Un Certain matin is indeed a treat, I remember the audience letting out a collective gasp when the plot twist was revealed. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 29, 2007 5:18 PM | Permalink

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