This film was the first directed by an Angolan woman—Maria João Ganga—as well as one of the first feature-length Angolan films released following the Angolan Civil War. The main characters, N’dala and Zé, have grown up and lived their entire childhoods surrounded by war. Living in Luanda, Zé has been shielded from some of the worst conflict in the Angolan countryside, whereas N’dala, having lived in the thick of the Civil War in the Bié Province, experienced the deaths of his family. In the film, he struggles to reconcile their deaths with his absence from Bié, where he longs to return.
Life After Death
The story of an Angolan folk hero named Ngunga is woven throughout the film. Zé is preparing to play the role of Ngunga in his class play. Quoting the play, he tells N’dala that Ngunga “wanted to know if men were the same everywhere, only thinking of themselves.” Like Ngunga, N’dala is a wandering orphan, looking for a place to stay; unlike Ngunga, perhaps, N’dala has a destination in mind: his home in the Bié Province, from which a nun has taken him and several other children.
One particularly poignant conversation between N’dala and Zé reveals precisely why N’dala is so desperate to return home, despite the death of his family. N’dala states that “I have to go back to find them.” Zé asks: “But what if they were killed?” N’dala replies: “I’ll find them all. They died but they’re up there in the sky. That’s what the Sister said, that they’re in the sky.” Zé tells him that “they are, but you can’t see them anymore,” to which N’dala explains: “Not here. Only in the sky in Bié.”
White Savior Complex
All of the characters, at least early in the film, are pretty sympathetic. Even the white nun who frantically searches for N’dala at first seems genuinely concerned about his safety: “This child came from the bush, he’ll never be able to survive. He’s walking around in the city! The city is a wild place!” However, she later implies that she’s also worried about saving her own soul from the guilt of losing him. She seems to exemplify the self-serving “white savior” archetype so frequently embodied by white Christians working in sub-Saharan Africa, channeling her inwardly directed guilt toward seemingly benevolent actions. No doubt that was Ganga’s intention: to present a critical portrayal of such figures.
Life Before Death
Importantly, this film does not present an unrelentingly tragic portrayal of Angolan life; N’dala and the other characters experience joy within the film. At times, in fact, it’s easy to forget that war is always lurking in the background. Above all, the tragic, sudden ending drives home the fragility of happiness (and life) during wartime, especially during a civil war like that of Angola, when desperation can drive otherwise decent people to brutality.
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