The Forest (Central African Republic, 2003)

Directed by Bassek ba Kobhio and Didier Ouénangaré, The Forest is a Pan-African co-production set in the Central African Republic. A twist on the white savior complex, the film presents the story of a man named Gonaba, who has returned to the CAR from France with a Western education, set on helping his country.

The Prodigal Son’s Return

Upon Gonaba’s return, a ferryman teases him, calling him a “white man” and saying how stupid it is to return to a country where there’s “a new set of ministers every month,” and where all they have for every meal is manioc. Ten years pass, and Gonaba is now an education minister. He fashions himself a benevolent master to his conscientious servant, Paul. During an Independence Day parade, Gonaba’s internal monologue reveals the extent of his scorn for his home country: “Tackiness and ostentation is what the country’s all about, 40 years after Independence. Heavy jackets under the hot sun, because it’s modern, even in a country of superstition and black magic.” He lists all of the participants in the parade: “policeman corrupted to their bones; war veterans forgotten by France and even by ourselves, brought back to life just for the parade; young, barely pubescent girls, selling themselves to those who can afford young flesh; students, well raised from the cradle on, praising on command, a benevolent government, while their teachers strike six months a year because they’re not getting paid,” all on display for “the massive unconscious partiers who just love this kind of noisy boasting.”

Afterwards, at a reception for prominent figures, Gonaba meets a glamorous bar owner named Simone. There’s a palpable connection between them. Some of the bigwigs throw scraps of food to a group of Biaka (“pygmy”) dancers performing for their entertainment. When Gonaba chooses to join in the dancing instead, he is called “a shame to our government.” The Prefect refers to the Biakas as “a tourist attraction for our country” and “a natural wealth we should exploit.” Gonaba disagrees: “Their strength has always fascinated me,” he confides in Simone. “Slavery, colonization, the sole party has deprived us of our personality, our soul, while centuries of humiliation didn’t change them a bit.” She replies: “You read too much. You dream with your eyes open. I don’t care if you’re right or wrong. You’re different. I like that.” Things move fast between them, because after all, “long courtships are for white men”—at least according to Gonaba. He seems eager to prove to Simone that he’s not white.

Gonaba’s “Civilizing” Project

Gonaba continues to be appalled at the treatment of Biaka servants at the hands of his constituents. In order to effect change, he resolves to join the Biakas. Simone is aghast: “Why go live with these savages? To educate them? So they can rebel?” To educate them, yes, but “to fight injustice,” he says. Disillusioned by Simone’s attitude, Gonaba tells her that the way she looks at Biakas is the same way that many whites look at Africans. His bridge to Simone thus thoroughly burnt, Gonaba befriends a Biaka servant named Manga. He tells Manga that, according to both Rousseau and Barthélémy Boganda have said that everyone is equal. Gonaba sees the relationship as mutually instructive; he will teach Manga to fight injustice, while Manga will teach him “the secret” to Biaka resilience.

The patriarch of Manga’s village initially thinks that Gonaba is the Gwati, or Great Spirit, until he realizes that Gonaba has Manga’s necklace. As Gonaba imperfectly adjusts to village life, he doggedly tries to “teach” the Biakas, giving them lessons in French, but they are unenthused. But Gonaba doesn’t give up; he continues to disrupt village life. He tells the villagers that he’s going to build them a large, well-ventilated, rectangular hut; the problem is, it’s on the ancestor’s land, and thus it’s forbidden for him to build there. “You shouldn’t do things out of habit,” he tells them. He just doesn’t get it, does he?

The patriarch tells Gonaba “The children don’t need your white man’s knowledge. They want to know the truth of the world.” He explains to Gonaba the story of why gorillas don’t have tails. It looks like Gonaba is beginning to understand. He falls in love with a Biaka woman named Kali, who later gives birth to their son, occasioning a village-wide celebration. “The ancestors could accept him now,” say some of the village men of Gonaba. Gonaba tells Kali that they will go live in the city, so that his son can be “the first Pygmy to go through higher schooling,” but she will have none of it: “Our life is here.” Seemingly conceding in his efforts to “civilize” the Biakas, Gonaba, now united with the villagers by blood, begins teaching the children Biaka folklore instead of French literacy. Finally satisfied, the patriarch says “You are now a son of this village.” First, though, he must undergo an initiation ceremony—and here is where we learn that Gonaba’s change of heart is quite superficial. During his initiation, it begins raining—a bad omen, they tell him. But Gonaba refuses to end the ceremony just on account of a little rain. And indeed, tragedy strikes, prompting Gonaba to leave the village, where he no longer feels welcome.

Gonaba’s Burden

What makes The Forest an interesting film is how it recasts Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” placing the imagined burden of the civilizing project on the shoulders of a European-educated African. Through this unconventional narrative, the film underscores the aftershocks of colonialism in a post-colonial Africa—which, like other post-colonial places, is not fully free of its colonial past—and how the specters of colonialism continue to contribute to ethnic divisions within African nations. During his education in France, Gonaba imbibes the ideas of Rousseau and, presumably, other Western thinkers. Seeking to uncritically bring these ideas to life in the Central African Republic, he fails to understand the lifeways of the Biakas, and unwittingly delivers death upon a Biaka village. But importantly, the film isn’t all about the inability of a European-educated Central African to understand the Biakas; it also showcases Biaka culture in what is ultimately a remarkably respectful way.

Up Next…

For the next post, I’ll discuss three short films, each depicting a traditional Oceanian story:

Footsteps (Cook Islands, 2014)

‘Aho’eitu (Tonga, 2015)

Maisa, the Chamoru Girl Who Saves Guåhan (Guam, 2015)

The Wind (Mali, 1982)

Directed by Souleymane Cissé, The Wind depicts the political and generational divide of late-twentieth-century Mali through the story of the friendship and romance between Bah, the grandson of a powerful chief, and Batrou, the daughter of a military governor.

In Their Forefathers’ Shadows

Batrou’s father, Sangaré, plans to send her to France for her education. She’s less than enthusiastic about the idea. Meanwhile, Bah is stressing about an important exam, so his friend Seydou gives him some pills to help study. Bah thinks the exam goes well, but when the results are read out, he is crestfallen to learn that he has not passed. Seydou didn’t pass either. Afterwards, Batrou comes to hang out with Bah, Seydou, and their friends. They sit around smoking pot and drinking; some of them get pretty incredibly toasted. But while they’re high, something is budding between Bah and Batrou. In a later scene, as Bah and Batrou bathe together, Bah is reluctant to undress. “I’ve never done it in front of a woman,” he admits sheepishly. “I get undressed and you refuse?” Batrou teases, splashing him playfully. It’s pretty cute.

Bah’s grandparents are horrified to learn that he’s been taking pills, but his grandfather Kansaye is even more furious that Bah has been seeing the Governor’s daughter. For his part, Sangaré disapproves of his daughter’s association with the depraved, pill-popping grandson of a village chieftain; he even threatens to dissolve his marriage to Batrou’s mother if she doesn’t ensure the “improvement” of Batrou’s behavior (meaning, of course, her connection to Bah). Meanwhile, Sangaré’s third wife Agna threatens to leave him if he takes a fourth wife. This, along with her other “insubordinate” actions, provokes his ire. But “Papa loves you,” Batrou assures her. “The proof is he beats you but doesn’t divorce you.”

More Than Just Teenage Rebellion

Conflict is brewing on another, bigger front as Sangaré learns that he is facing political opposition. Even more worrisome, it’s begin led by Bah and his friends (including Batrou), who print pamphlets underground. But some of the protesters don’t trust Bah due to his closeness with the Governor’s daughter. When the military teargasses the opposition’s headquarters, that only makes the student protesters more committed to their cause and more militant in their tactics. The military then responds, as you might expect, with excessive force. Bah is among those arrested, while some of the village women protect Batrou and are themselves arrested. Batrou pleads for the women to be released, but instead, she is also arrested. The witch-hunt is spiraling out of control; Sangaré even authorizes his men to kill Batrou if they see fit.

Sangaré calls the rebel prisoners “stateless sons of hell,” saying that “no one will care if I kill all of you.” He tells them that if they sign a document pledging their faith to the military government, he will release them. Bah protests. “Why sign it? You can kill us, you don’t need our signature.” Sangaré informs him that a refusal to sign would mean being committed to hard labor, to which Bah replies “I prefer hard labor.” When none of the other prisoners seem as steadfast as Bah, Batrou says to them: “Aren’t you ashamed? You let him defend us alone.” She addresses her father: “Governor, if you will allow me, I am now aware that we see things very differently, and I wonder if I am really of your blood.” Sangaré replies coldly: “What Marx taught you is no help here.” But for Batrou, this goes beyond politics: “You forbid me to see the man I love.” She leaves, and the other prisoners sign their souls away.

Kansaye is incensed at the treatment of his grandson. Batrou apologizes to him for what she has gotten Bah into. He accepts her apology and says he has nothing against her—it’s the fault of the Governor and his goons. Kansaye prays to a sacred tree for his grandson’s release. The god of the Tree responds that there is nothing that divine powers can do: “From now on, act upon your own initiative.” Taking the message to heart, Kansaye approaches Sangaré and tells him: “When I return home, I want to find my grandson there.” Sangaré is both annoyed and somewhat amused. He shoots Kansaye, but Kansaye merely chuckles and walks away unscathed. Upon returning home, though, Kansaye receives gut-wrenching (though perhaps less-than-accurate) news, prompting him to burn his ceremonial garb in tearful outrage. He pledges his support for the young rebels. As the film draws to its conclusion, the Minister of the Interior orders Sangaré to release the prisoners. Sangaré complies with the order, albeit with a look of fear on his face.

Up Next…

Blood of the Condor (Bolivia, 1969)

Wea Nao Mi? (Solomon Islands, 2012); Looking for Nelao (Namibia, 2015); Icimonwa (Zambia, 2016)

As I said in the last post, this time I’ll be discussing three short films that deal with issues of identity and memory. In each of these films, the main character awakens to find himself lost in one way or another, and we watch him try, successfully or unsuccessfully, to regain his bearings.

Wea Nao Mi?

Directed by a team of artists (Charley Piringi, Moses Au, Kerrie Jionisi, Neil Cassidy, Regina Lepping, Francis Bele, Glen Deni, and Sosimo Narasia) from a collaborative filmmaking group called Wantok Stori, Wea Nao Mi? (“Where Am I?”) begins with a man named Wane (played by Moses Teikai) walking through the Solomon Islands forests of yesteryear with his uncle. Along the way, Wane finds a golden pocket watch. His uncle gives him a Subi (a traditional Solomon Islander protective weapon), but Wane is more interested in the watch.

Entranced by it, he lies down and places it over his heart before sinking into a dream. When he awakens, he finds himself in an unfamiliar city, twenty-first-century Honiara, surrounded by Pall Mall packs and gravel, speaking a language (Pijin) with which he is equally unfamiliar. Baffled, he stumbles into a dance-off with some krumpers. After his humiliating defeat, a young woman (Alice, played by co-director Regina Lepping) follows Wane to a nearby gazebo, where she apologizes for the way her friends razzed him.

Alice quickly understands the improbable situation in which Wane has found himself and offers to take him to a museum gift shop full of Kastom objects. Wane spots the Subi that his uncle gave him, and takes it. Of course, the shop owner accuses him of stealing, but Alice tells her that it’s his. And suddenly, we’re back in time, where Wane’s uncle wakes him up. Confused, Wane asks “Where am I?” this time in his native tongue. As his uncle beckons him to keep following, Wane leaves behind the watch and grabs the Subi.

Looking for Nelao

Directed by Oshoveli Shipoh, this film depicts the struggles of a young man, Edward, to piece his life back together after awakening from a coma. The sole survivor of a horrific car accident, Edward has been in a coma for nearly a year. Upon his release from the hospital, he wanders through the city streets holding a picture of a young woman—his girlfriend, Nelao.

There’s no spoken dialogue, only subtitles. To me, this highlights Edward’s derealization upon coming out of the coma after so long. His isolation is only compounded by the fact that nobody seems to recognize Nelao’s picture—until he comes to a village in the countryside. A woman washing clothes recognizes Nelao’s photo and tells Edward that she lives in a neighboring house. Edward knocks on the door, and when Nelao answers she is ecstatic at their long-awaited reunion; Edward is, too, until another man walks up behind Nelao, that is. Heartbroken, Edward leaves, but Nelao follows him, telling her new boyfriend “I can’t do this anymore.” Edward will have none of it: “I don’t want to hear what you have to say.” We see Nelao’s flashbacks to the happiness of their former relationship. The brilliant colors contrast sharply with the washed-out filter of the rest of the film.

We learn that Edward’s family didn’t approve of Nelao; when she went to visit him in the hospital, Edward’s sister prevented her from entering. “I thought I told you to stay away from my brother!” she exclaims. “He’s in there fighting for his life and your ghetto ass is always showing up here!” It seems that her disdain for Nelao was exacerbated by the fact that Edward was on his way to visit Nelao when the accident happened. Edward, of course, was unaware of this argument. When he finally understands, he accepts Nelao into his arms. I’ve never been a huge fan of happy endings, but this was a nice change of pace, I have to admit.

Icimonwa

This film is by far the most bizarre of the three. Directed by Bennie Chibwe, Icimonwa stars rookie actor Philip Mutika as the unnamed main character. We see him lying apparently lifeless on the sand in a canyon before suddenly waking up, as if from a coma. He stares around at his surroundings in utter bafflement.

The ensuing seven minutes track his attempts to piece together what happened and, more importantly, who he is. Clues are littered throughout the sands: a fro pick, a small mirror, a purse, the Zimbabwe flag, among others. We get the sense that he’s not alone. And, it turns out, he isn’t. One line of angry dialogue suddenly cuts through the unsettling soundtrack.

But who is the mysterious assailant? And is he indeed responsible for what happened to the main character? The brief film is hallucinatory, blurring reality and dream, and by the end, few questions are answered. I’m not even sure what Icimonwa means. Is it the main character’s name? It’s also the name of a song sung by the Precious Angels Church Choir, also of Zambia, but other than that my search turned up no clues. Any tips would be much appreciated.

Up Next…

The Parade (Serbia, 2011)

Beats of the Antonov (Sudan, 2014)

Directed by Hajooj Kuka, the film opens with the literal beats of the Antonov, dropping bombs as it flies over a village. Eerily, the sounds of explosions and crackling fire are overlaid with the laughter of children. The voice of Jojah Bujud, a Sudanese musician, tells us: “The laughter is always there. People laugh despite the catastrophe because they realize they are not hurt. Laughter is like a new birth.” With these words, the beats of the Antonov are replaced by beats of a different kind: the music of drums, singing, and the Rababa, a North African stringed instrument. “When you play the Rababa,” Bujud says, “people forget their hardships for a moment. They enter a state of happiness.” The music plays another function as well; at night, the children of the village sing and play the Rababa until the plane passes, so no one is asleep when the bombs come.

We Want What Is Ours

The Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains region of South Kurdufan state wanted to join South Sudan but were denied the right to vote to secede, and thus remained part of the north. Although administratively part of the Republic of Sudan, people of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains culturally identify with South Sudan and differentiate themselves from “Northerners.” Northern Sudan remains Arab-centric. Thus, in the words of Muna Abdallah, a young refugee: “For you to be part of these people you have to be fluent in Arabic. Your failure in the Arabic language means your failure in the education system as a whole. That’s why you find that most of the educational gaps are among those for whom Arabic is not their mother tongue.”

“War is good and bad,” explains Insaf Awad, a Sudanese refugee. “It makes people attached to their culture.” The cultures of the Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains are not taken seriously by Sudanese national media. “Why?” Seif Alislam, another refugee, asks rhetorically. “Because my people’s music is categorized as pagan where the two sexes mix, and the girls are immodest, girls and boys dance together, the boys are too feminine.” According to Sudanese human rights activist Albaqir Elafeef, “the war is caused by the Northerners’ identity crisis. The war is against all the African elements in Sudan”; in other words, it is “a war actually waged in the subconscious of Northerners against its own black element.” At the a political training institute run by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in Nuba Mountains, SPLA officers prepare trainees to help fight against the arbitrary racial divisions imposed by the state. Yunis Elahaimar of the Institute explains that the government imagines the Nuba Mountains region as an African enemy threatening to take over Sudan.

An Alternative Sudan

Sarah Mohamed, a Sudanese ethnomusicologist, explains: “Despite this racist war being waged and these people fighting to keep their culture alive, knowing that others fight them because their color and roots are different, I came here and found that the girls are no different. They use these creams on their faces and tell you because redness is more beautiful.” She continues: “The idea that ‘Black is beautiful’ has not reached us, although we are all black. Why did it not reach us? It is baffling, right? The whole country are Africans, and everyone wants to paint themselves white.” According to Elafeef, “inside every Northerner there’s a tiny Arab,” and it is this interior voice that drives channels Sudanese self-loathing toward the racial “other” of places like the Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains. Sudanese refugee Rabha Awad condemns state-sponsored aggression against the border states: “We want him [Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan] to send his own kids if he wants war. But he doesn’t. He only pushes the Black people to die.”

Beats of the Antonov is a beautiful film that highlights, as Sarah Mohamed puts it, “an alternative Sudan.” Scenes of warfare—sometimes graphic—are interwoven into the film, but refreshingly, Kuka focuses on resilience of the people of southern Sudan and their cultural tenacity in the face of civil war. This is not your typical war documentary.

Up Next…

Kolya (Czech Republic, 1996)

 

Confusion Na Wa (Nigeria, 2013)

Directed by young filmmaker Kenneth Gyang, Confusion Na Wa (which I think translates to something like “Holy shit! Confusion!”—if I’m wrong, let me know) begins with a mysterious narrator, whose identity is not revealed until the final scene, telling us that “some things don’t happen for a reason. Some things just happen.” Over the course of the film, each of its several subplots begin to collide. That’s where most of the intrigue—as well as the story’s darkly comic moments—come from. As the lives of the characters intertwine, the drama unfolds. Their lies and façades unravel, and in the end, not all of them escape alive.

Things Fall Apart

In the opening scene, we see Emeka, a wealthy light-skinned man from Abuja, receive a text from his mistress Isabella. Shortly thereafter, Emeka’s phone is stolen by two street hustlers, Charles and Chichi. In contrast with Emeka’s proper Nigerian—almost British—accent, Charles and Chichi speak Nigerian pidgin. Charles and Chichi are no simple pickpockets. For his part, Chichi is prone to philosophizing. He tells Charles: “Lion King is a neo colonial history of Zimbabwe from a European perspective. The whole film is a white conspiracy! Initially there is apparent order in the pride lands which are ruled by the light lion King with a minority of other light lions. But this is because he excludes the darkly colored hyenas, who he considers to be inferior and not worthy of any of the wealth generated by the land. This represents colonial Rhodesia, and the light Lion King is Sir Cecil Rhodes.” But even more horrifying, he says, it’s a vision of the European dream for the future of Africa: a restoration of power to the light-skinned lions. A very astute interpretation, it strikes me. Charles doesn’t really take Chichi’s interpretation seriously, though. Anyway, he’s more concerned about extorting money from Emeka in exchange for his cell phone—and in exchange for not informing his wife about his affair.

Isabella’s husband is a man named Bello, a conscientious but impotent office worker who believes that he “should” be promoted soon. “Should. Should?” Isabella asks incredulously. “Is that your favorite word? Should doesn’t mean shit.” “You’re a loser,” she continues. “I wonder if you even have enough balls to make children.” And it turns out that perhaps, in a way, she’s right. When Isabella tells Bello that she’s pregnant, he suspects that the baby is not his. His suspicions are confirmed when he reads a text that she received from Emeka (actually from Charles, pretending to be Emeka): “The nile is a very long river indeed can u imagine how good it wld feel flowing inside ur lush African valley? I want to fertilize ur plains. Luv from the lion king [sic].” Isabella tries to turn Bello into the bad guy, telling him that “now that I tell you that I actually am pregnant, you have the fucking barefaced shitbrain nerve to accuse me of adultery! Only you won’t actually say it because you don’t have the balls! Go to hell, Bello! Go straight to hell and rot there!”

Confusion Everywhere

Elsewhere in the city, a young man named Kola argues with his father, Babajide, who blames the moral corruption of Nigerian youth for the country’s rising crime rate. Kola forcefully disagrees, instead placing the onus on government corruption and its aftereffects. Babajide is virulently homophobic. He has a bumper sticker that says “I am an ideal citizen. What about you?” He tells Kola that criminal behavior correlates with homosexuality. Kola finds this assertion ridiculous, asking his father if he committed a crime now, would that make him gay? “I need the clarification on this father. I mean, your definition is so confusing. I don’t even know myself anymore. Am I gay? I don’t even know.”

This bombshell provokes Babajide to action. He takes Kola to be “cured” of homosexuality by having sex with a “nurse” (prostitute). Importantly, while the film is not exactly pro-gay, it’s anti-anti-gay; Babajide basically comes off looking like a jackass. We learn that, despite his denunciation of Nigeria’s moral degeneration, he drives a stolen car and is friends with Charles’s and Chichi’s weed-dealer—who is also apparently a pimp.

I highly recommend the film. Importantly, Gyang was educated in both Jos and Ouagadougou. Thus, Confusion Na Wa is an excellent piece that combines, as Gyang explains in this interview, elements of standard Nollywood fare with the heavy-hitting French-inflected style of Francophone African cinema. Before watching, though, be warned that the film contains a scene depicting the lead-up and aftermath of a rape. At least, however, it’s not graphic, and spares us from seeing the rape itself take place.

Up Next…

Trollhunter (Norway, 2010)

Makibefo (Madagascar, 1999)

This brilliant and unusual film takes the plot of Macbeth and relocates it to the shores of Madagascar. Makibefo was directed by Alexander Abela—not himself from Madagascar, though since the film has an entirely Malagasy cast, I thought it would work well as Madagascar’s entry for this blog. (Malagasy films are not terribly easy to come by.)

What’s Done Is Done

Set in a small Antandroy village in the far south of Madagascar, the film is the story of a couple’s treacherous hunger for power. It’s recognizably Macbeth, to the point that viewers familiar with the story would probably hardly need subtitles to understand what’s going on. But it’s also something entirely different. This is hardly an adaptation—it’s more of a reinvention. The sonorous narration of the storyteller, played by Guadeloupean actor Gilbert Laumord, is the only real Shakespearean holdover.

Early in the film Makibefo’s wife, Valy Makibefo, murmurs: “To become king you’ll need to call upon evil.” This is a sentiment that Makibefo understands well: “Know that if we commit this horrid crime,” he tells his wife, “there will be no turning back.” Indeed, the tragedy of Makibefo unwinds in just the manner you’d expect if you’re familiar with the Scottish play. Makidofy finds Valy Makibefo catatonic, holding a knife as if about to plunge it into someone’s breast. The gravity of her and her husband’s crimes has rendered her essentially paralyzed. And, of course, their bloodlust snowballs from there. In another scene, the witch doctor tells Makibefo to beware Makidofy. When Makibefo sees Makidofy fleeing the village in a boat, he executes Makidofy’s family within Makidofy’s view.

Sound and Fury

At only 73 minutes, the film is brief, but powerful—one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Before watching the film, however, do be warned that it contains the unsimulated slaughter and butchering of an ox. A message at the end of the film explains that “The Zebu ox in the film was sacrificed in our honour according to the customs of the Antandroy people and was distributed to the families involved in the making of Makibefo.” The scenes of the butchery are interlaced with segments depicting Bakoua’s death. Makibefo proudly raises the ox’s head above his own, proclaiming “I am your new king!” Just like the Thane of Glamis, Makibefo is haunted by the silent ghost of Bakoua, to the consternation of Valy Makibefo.

The film concludes with the following message: “The Antandroy people of Madagascar who played the characters and helped in the making of this film are an ancient tribe with a truly great sense of pride, honour and tradition. A poor people in what is already a poor country, they have few possessions and little knowledge of the outside world. As simple fishermen, they live off of the ocean that crashes against their unchanging shoreline and take one day at a time. The majority of the actors have never seen a television let alone a film, and have never acted before in their lives,” Laumord being presumably the sole exception. I like the vibe that such casting decisions lend to films like this; Travellers and Magicians was also cast with mostly first-time actors, and in both cases, it works.

Up Next…

Black Bread (Spain, 2010) was

Hollow City (Angola, 2004)

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.

Up Next…

Anita, the Insect Hunter (Honduras, 2001)