As I've learned through some modest research on the first few movies from Cinemascapist's list "The Best African Movies, from All 54 Countries," a significant share of African cinema prior to the greater accessibility of the digital era has been the product of Europeans harnessing their resources to tell African stories. As I expect the topic of European colonialism to feature prominently as long as my streak through this list continues, this is an irony worth noting, especially in this age of sensitivity toward perspective, identity and narrative. While Sambizanga director Sarah Maldoror is a French citizen, she was the daughter of immigrants from the West Indies, and spent her career as a filmmaker documenting and dramatizing the struggles of immigrants and African identity movements, and married into the Angolan revolution through liberation movement leader Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade.
Although Angola's revolution against 500 years of Portuguese colonization wouldn't achieve victory for another two years, Maldoror's 1973 debut feature is set a decade earlier, during the nascent movement's early days. The story of Sambizanga is its least impressive facet, split between two journeys provoked by the arrest of Domingos (played by another filmmaker, the exiled Angolan writer Domingos de Oliveira), a construction worker who spreads revolutionary leaflets on his own time.
The more interesting journey is that of Domingos' wife, Maria (Elisa Andrade), who lugs their infant child from village to city, and one police station to the next, hunting for any information about where her husband was taken and why. The bureaucratic runaround and willful deception that she faces foreshadows Zhang Yimou's great social drama The Story of Qiu Jiu. While Sambizanga is neither as ambitious or satirical as Yimou's film, it owns its simplicity with a series of ruminous shots of Maria traveling, by foot and by bus, set to some terrifically evocative music.
The other journey, which also includes a lot of walking, is less productive, as concerned revolutionaries also investigate the arrest. I'm not sure what Maldoror intended this half of the movie to accomplish; other than, maybe, depicting the activists as normal, good-but-imperfect people, including kids and old people, who care about their country, and adding more opportunities for slices of Angolan life. As revolutionaries, they don't really seem to do anything except espouse shallow Marxism, wander around, fail to learn anything about Domingos, and throw a party. Still, this section ends movingly, with a neat brief call against despair in the face of terrible news.
With the help of co-writer and cinematographer Claude Agostini (who would later shoot Black and White in Color and Quest for Fire for director Jean-Jacques Annaud), Maldoror gives Sambizanga a cinéma vérité energy that is vibrant in feeling despite the poor quality of the print. Her mostly amateur cast has a lot of natural presence, making the 100-minute running time of Sambizanga a welcome breeze, even though it's generous to describe the narrative as "wandering."
Overall, Sambizanga is a pleasant surprise evincing Maldoror's skill at capturing the texture and sounds of Angolan culture, whatever her ethnic credentials, and depicting a nationalist revolution inside a mostly positive light. It's too bad that the only print currently in circulation is so worn and faded; if this and presumably more of Maldoror's large body of documentaries and comedies(!) were to be restored and more easily accessible, it's likely that adventurous film seekers would find them worth exploring.