American Doc Showcase Visits Angola

Xandra Castleton January 11, 2011

It takes a long time to travel to Luanda, the capital of Angola, no matter where you begin your journey. Angola is in the process of surpassing Nigeria as Africa’s top oil exporter, and I heard tell of luxury non-commercial direct flights between Luanda and Houston, but I left San Francisco on a Thursday afternoon on a United economy ticket and arrived in Luanda just before dawn on Saturday morning.

I stood in an interminable line for customs with my fellow passengers from London, most of them burly oil men who grumbled and shifted in their boots. The customs hall was silent except for low murmurs, the stamping of papers, and the music piped in at a respectable volume. Good music. Angolan music. Kizomba—something I’d hear a lot over the next week. I was delirious from exhaustion, but I couldn’t help dancing in the customs line. I was back in Africa.

I had never been to Angola, but I lived in Senegal and in Guinea-Bissau from age 10 to 17, and in the Ivory Coast for a year and half after college. I’d only been back to Africa twice in the intervening years, and the last trip was over ten years ago. After all those years of learning and absorbing and growing up in Africa, this was the first time I was going back to teach.

I went to Angola as a delegate with the American Documentary Showcase, a State Department-funded program that sends American documentaries around the world, accompanied by filmmakers who teach filmmaking workshops. I was accompanying Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s film, New Muslim Cool, which would be screening at the third annual Luanda Film Festival. Each delegation includes one of the filmmakers (in this case co-producer Hana Siddiqi) and one “Film Expert” —ostensibly me.

From my window seat I had seen the orange glow of oil well fires burning in the darkness and was struck by how little I really knew about Angola, and much less about the people who would be participating in my workshops. I had read all I could on the country, on the tiny bit of film history there, but I couldn’t really imagine what the mixture of 30 years of war barely over and the recent gush of oil money had created. I had workshops prepared, but I wondered if what I had prepared was relevant. I knew little about my future students, their references, their film knowledge or their access to equipment. I didn’t know my audience.

Hana and I worked for weeks with the American Embassy to create a jam-packed schedule for the visit, which included workshops with journalists and artists in addition to the film students, a screening of New Muslim Cool at the festival, and a visit and screening of the film at a local mosque. I would have a few days before my filmmaking workshop to figure out what I thought would be most valuable to the students, and I was sure I would have a little time to slip away, explore the streets and get a sense of everyday daily life for Angolans. But first, I would rest.

DAY 1, Saturday

As it turns out, this will not be a trip for resting nor for exploring. I fall into bed at 7:00 am only to be roused by a pounding on the door at 8:00 am. I shoo the man away, but an hour later he returns, this time to introduce me to my mortified co-delegate Hana Siddiqi. The man is Carlos, the kindly paternalistic representative from our hosts at the Ministry of Culture, who takes his role as the babysitter of the foreign guests of the festival very seriously, and will go on to wake me unnecessarily early every day of my stay.

Carlos herds all nine foreign visitors (from the U.S., Brazil, Portugal and Mozambique) into a van, and takes us to a buffet of Angolan food at a local restaurant called “O Buraco da Floresta” (The Hole of the Forest, where we’ll be eating lunch and dinner all week.) O Buraco serves as the unofficial festival headquarters, if you can imagine a film festival with the same daily cast of 12 or so people in attendance, an array of meats heavy in palm oil, piles of spiny lobsters, and a whiskey bottle opened at every meal.

That evening is the official Brazil Day—we are shipped off to watch a documentary on sex tourism in Brazil, and then back to the Buraco, where some of our colleagues are sitting in the same place we’d left them at lunch. There are no daytime screenings at this festival.

DAY 2, Sunday

Sunday is our one free day and we all climb into the van thinking we’re going to a craft market and instead drive for two hours to see abandoned Soviet ships along the coast. Some 400 Soviet ships were ground ashore along the coast north of Luanda during the ’70s (apparently for the insurance money) as the war of independence was coming to an end. Hulking rusting vessels form a junkyard of history along the otherwise beautiful Angolan coastline, junk that reportedly can be seen on Google Earth. We stop the car near the remains of the Karl Marx, and the sight of the defaced and abandoned ship is strikingly sad after driving past the oil refineries and the people living in squalor right next to them. There sits communism literally run aground, in a country whose civil conflict was a high stakes chess match in the Cold War games. A conflict that lasted 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Xandra Castleton stands in front of one of 400 Soviet ships that were ground ashore along the coast north of Luanda during the ’70s./HANA SIDDI

The drive is a chance to see life outside the city center, if even from the car window. I see children carrying babies everywhere, even a toddler half-dragging a baby, and I remember that I’m in the country with the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, second only to Afghanistan.

At night we visit the other side of life in Luanda. Hana and I go to dinner with Daniel, the American Cultural Affairs Officer and our host from the Embassy, who takes us to a lovely beachfront restaurant with delicious food, balmy breezes and hundred dollar meals. Daniel explains that those who live well in Luanda live very well, and that food is wildly expensive. Everything is imported, which is what happens when your country is littered with landmines. We keep him there for hours asking questions about Angola, and I find myself telling stories about the places I lived in Africa, especially Guinea-Bissau, (also a former Portuguese colony and former socialist state). Maybe I do know something about living in a place like this.

DAY 3, Monday

Lots of driving today: two trips to the Embassy at least an hour each, one to the wrong venue for a workshop, one to the Cine Atlantico for another workshop and arrangements for tomorrow’s screening, one to the restaurant.

I’m starting to realize that much of what I’ll see of Angola will be through a car window. Getting anywhere through Luanda traffic is dangerous on a level that makes the famously bad traffic of Santo Domingo look tame. The city has five million people and not a single traffic light.

What I see out the van windows aside from crazy congestion and wild close calls in traffic is an astounding amount of construction. The entire city (and from what I hear, the entire country) is under construction – freeways, bridges, railways, an urban beachfront modeled after that of Ipanema, tall office buildings. Shiny new oil company buildings flash neon signs, and yet most of the buildings I visit have toilets that only flush if you pour a bucket of water in. There is a building that keeps catching my attention each time we pass it on the way back from the Buraco restaurant. It’s about 15 stories high, but unfinished—there are no external walls or running water or electricity. Squatters live there, and you can see their laundry and even their children up in the open balconies with no railing, no wall to keep them from falling to their deaths.

We drop in on a producing workshop led by one of the Portuguese guests, and I get my first glimpse of my future workshop participants. They’re young, they’re well put together, and they’re in front of the class, moving forward to the mic to state their role in a hypothetical production (“We’re the wardrobe dept.,” etc). It’s incredibly basic stuff. I wonder again if I’ve prepared the right material.

Hana and I escape for an outing on foot for the first and only time, with our friends Gigliola and Esmael from Mozambique. We’re heading out the hotel gates to walk to a nearby record store in  the neighborhood, breaking the strict rules of security, when Carlos spots us and yells for us to turn back. We break into a run and round the corner, laughing. It feels great to walk, to explore the neighborhood and talk to vendors on the street. We return soon as Gigliola isn’t feeling well, and it turns out to be the beginning of a malarial episode.

DAY 4, Tuesday

At breakfast the three Portuguese teachers answer my questions about their workshops in emphatic terms: The students know nothing, they have no experience. They tell me that I must stick to the basics in my workshop (and don’t let them talk too much or they won’t stop).

Our workshop on representation with journalists goes well, and I’m happy to meet women working on violence prevention. Afterwards I’m kept for interviews, including one in which I’m asked to name my favorite brand.

Every day I learn a little more about that unfinished building, and today I hear that because of the bad roads in that neighborhood there’s a lake at the base of the building. The driver and Carlos both confirm a rumor that a mermaid lives in the lake. Now I really want to stop there and investigate, but there is an agenda, no car to take me and no taxis to get back to the hotel on my own.

Late afternoon and it’s time for US Day at the FIC Luanda Film Festival, for which the Cine Atlantico is festooned with red, white and blue balloons in anticipation of the screening of New Muslim Cool. Popcorn is served, and the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) gives a speech about the diversity of American culture, the importance of documentary and of this particular film. He introduces Hana and I, and Hana introduces the film. At least two hundred people show up and stay for the outdoor screening and Q&A, including many Muslims. The Q&A is dominated by one man who takes umbrage at the story of a Muslim who was once a drug dealer. He questions the motives of the U.S. government in showing the film in a country that doesn't welcome Muslims. The DCM runs up to the mic and responds—diplomatically of course, and closes the Q&A. Afterward, Hana is mobbed, and we’re flitting from conversations with Muslims who are amazed to see attention focused on Islam in a country that doesn’t even recognize the religion, to filmmakers who want our attention, to democracy educators. At 10:00 p.m. we break free for another delicious dinner with Daniel, in the old part of the city near the presidential palace.

DAY 5, Wednesday

This morning we’re scheduled to screen New Muslim Cool at a mosque, so before breakfast Hana comes over to help me work up a decent hijab. It’s odd to be out in public dressed as a white Muslim in Angola, where Muslims are a generally unwelcome minority and where most Muslims are immigrants. I’m a minority dressed as another minority. We ride together to the Embassy, making up a rap song about hijabs, only to learn that the visit is postponed because the rain has made the roads impassable.

Women discuss film at a mosque in Luanda./XANDRA CASTLETON

The Embassy driver kindly takes us to a restaurant that caters to people of “our” faith – an Ethiopian halah restaurant that sends Hana into frankincense and meat heaven.

Next up is an interview at the official radio station on the one film program, in a socialist-era large open building in which a miniature man grills Hana on what he seems to suggest is her Muslim agenda behind the film. I’m interviewed as a representative of Hollywood, on topics such as whether the Oscars were created to maintain US world dominance in cinema. I’m not feeling hopeful about Angolan Cinema as we race out of there to our next meeting.

We meet with the directors and curators of the second Luanda Trienale, an immensely ambitious three-month art and performance multi-venue exhibition of some of the best work on the African continent (plus films by Fassbinder). One of the curators is the founder of the only magazine I ever collected (an African Art Review), and I’m impressed. They are people with great taste bringing high quality art to Luanda and apparently helping to finance local artists. We tour the gallery, and I leave with a tremendous sense of possibility for Angola.

I look at my notes, consider everything I’ve learned over the past few days and prepare for the workshop until 3:00 a.m.

DAY 6, Thursday (Thanksgiving)

The next morning Carlos wakes me at 7:00 a.m., though my workshop isn’t until noon.

There are nearly one hundred students who have already sat for three hours in Hana’s workshop when I take the mic but they don’t want to break for lunch. They want to learn. I had been warned to keep things basic, since most of them have never made a movie. But I take it the other way, and talk with them about vision, about the importance of theme, and break those down. We discuss universal themes. I talk to them about metaphor, about opening shots, and show them clips of films they’ve never seen. We talk about characters that compel us and why. Some of them are caught up in learning the exact order of importance of each of these things. There is a debate, but it’s understood that I’m urging them to make films that have a particular point of view, that are true to their lives or their imaginations or the stories in their minds and traditions. I tell them that they have an incredible opportunity to create a national cinema, and that they should work together to help and inspire each other. I repeat these points, I show examples, and then they’re ready for a pitch session. Hana joins me with her interpreter, and we hear short pitches for both fiction and non-fiction films. Some are terrible, some are intriguing, but we push and question and they’re receptive. Finally, we’re kicked out of the room. I want to stay, I wish I could stay for weeks. We’ve only scratched the surface.
Today is Thanksgiving, so we stop by the apartment where Daniel lives, along with the majority of American diplomats , across the street from the embassy. (There were jokes about Real World Luanda).


The closing ceremony at Cine Atlantico was a lavish affair./XANDRA CASTLETON

We arrive at the closing ceremony for the festival, and realize that we’re woefully underdressed. It’s a lavish affair set up outdoors in the entrance to the Cine Atlantico, gold settings and beautiful hostesses, a red carpet, a lineup of films and musicians and of course a huge buffet. The students are there to receive their diplomas as the first graduates of the Film Institute, and one by one as we’re still in line at the buffet they ask if we’ll hear their pitch. We go off into a quiet corner to hear pitches, and soon a line forms. They’re good, they’re fascinating, they’re strange, but they listen to everything we say, and they are determined. One wants to document traditions that are being lost, another has two ideas based on historical characters. There is a commotion, and suddenly everyone is yelling Hana’s name. The Minister of Culture is onstage holding a huge trophy and flowers and has just announced New Muslim Cool as the winner of the best international documentary award. I’m pushed onstage by the head of the festival to accept on her behalf, then Hana emerges from a pitch session and I hand her the trophy. As I step off the stage a bank of fireworks explodes above my head and showers down on me and on the all the television cameras documenting the moment.

Rain closes the ceremonies, though even as it poured down film students are trying to talk with us about their film ideas.

DAY 7, Friday

Finally, the visit to the mosque, and I go out into the world in hijab once again. It hasn’t rained for three days, but the roads are still lakes, and we’re in a very different world from downtown Luanda. The mosque is in an immigrant neighborhood of dirt roads, and we arrive as Friday prayer (which is mandatory for men) has already begun, so we step out into a sea of hundreds of men stepping out of muddy shoes and onto makeshift prayer mats outside the mosque. There appear to be five or six hundred men there, and we’re not sure where to go. A woman spots me and gestures for me to follow her so I grab Hana and the two female diplomats follow behind as we negotiate our way into the mosque courtyard and up the back stairs to a small area of the balcony that is partitioned and reserved for women. Hana joins the women in prayer as I discreetly take pictures. After prayer someone sends for us and we join Daniel and the male leaders of the mosque in the front of the mosque, where I presume very few women have ever been. They seat us at a long table covered in white cloth and discuss preparations for the event as we sit and stare out at two or three hundred men sitting on the floor, staring back at us. We photograph each other, and finally, speeches are made, a blessing in song is given, and Hana introduces the film. She is moved to tears by the chance to share the film in this setting, and I’m feeling lucky to be a part of this moment. The film is screened without the sound, because of the problem of secular music being played in a mosque, so the room thins. I sit in the back with some ladies I met in the washroom and invited to watch the film, and answer their questions during the screening. One woman asks detailed questions about the story of the rapper and former drug-addict named Hamsa that is told in the film, making notes on a small pad of paper. She then repeats the details to me, and twice again to others around her. She is making sure she gets it right so she can share what she’s learning with her four sons.

The screening is cut short and promises made that the mosque will have access to a DVD to distribute. We say our lengthy goodbyes. It’s a hot day and I’m wearing a sweater to cover my arms. When we’re some distance away from the mosque I start to take off the hijab, and as I do so I notice the car alongside us, carrying the leader of the mosque. To my surprise I feel embarrassed.

Back at the hotel I try to nap, but can’t so I decide to watch Angolan TV, and I watch a program in which people speak the names of lost relatives to the camera in hopes of being reunited (as shown in The Hero, the one Angolan film that won a prize at Sundance). On another channel a gorgeous Angolan talk-show host with a huge high hairstyle sits with her guest on a swanky set.

Much later we finally go out dancing. Until 4:30 in the morning. Kizomba.

DAY 8, Saturday

We say our farewells to our festival hosts at O Buraco, and are invited back next year. They tell us we’re now a part of the core team, and I like the sound of that. I’d like to return to Angola, and to keep returning to Africa. I have so much more to learn—and maybe something relevant to teach.