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58 minutes, 1997, Angola / France / Germany / Mauritania
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
in French and Portuguese with English subtitles
An online FACILITATOR GUIDE is available for this title.

Rostov-Luanda could at first glance appear to be a travelogue. If so, it is a travelogue in search of the past which discovers the present instead.

Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako records his journey across war-torn Angola to find an old friend but really to recapture his own hopes for Africa. He explains that Angolan independence in 1974 represented to him a new beginning for Africa. Like so many young Africans, he went to the Soviet Union in the 1980s for political and technical training and met an Angolan, Baribanga, whose confidence in his country's future embodied Sissako's own hopes for the continent. But the intervening years of civil war between Angolan factions each backed by a superpower and all the other catastrophes plaguing Africa have devastated the optimism of Sissako's generation. Rostov-Luanda is thus a significant response to the disillusionment found in many recent African films, including Afrique, je te plumerai, Udju Azul di Yonta and Tableau Ferraille. Rostov Luanda is also a film built around an absence. The elusiveness of its ostensible subject in a familiar post-modern trope turns attention back on the filmmaker and his response - or lack of response - to his immediate surroundings, to the unpremeditated.. Thus in Rostov Luanda the "subject" continually drifts from the search for Baribanga to Sissoko's encounter with the reality of Angola today.

Sissako begins his search for Africa by returning to his birthplace, Kiffa, a small town in the desert interior of Mauritania. His cousin can't understand why as soon as he comes home he must move on to Angola but Sissako explains "Man is born to travel, to suffer, to meet people, to learn customs; I go to Angola to live my adventure." The villagers can only interpret his mission in terms of a traditional song about the first Moorish knight to undertake the Islamic hejira to Mecca, a journey also intended to transform the pilgrim.

Armed with a tattered picture of Baribanga and himself at school in Rostov, Sissako arrives in a Luanda still recovering from thirty years of wars. The Angolan core of this documentary is framed by an interview with a resigned but engaging young professional woman. Her pessimism, in a sense, serves as a "shadow" or counterpoint to Baribanga's earlier optimism. She explains that in Angola the poor Portuguese colonists integrated more with Africans than the French or British because they recognized in each other a defeated people. She feels that Africa is utterly hopeless, pointing to Zaire and Rwanda. She confesses that unlike Baribanga she was never really political, participating in the MPLA merely to be with her more militant friends. But, she wryly observes, when the country began to disintegrate the militants left, and it was she who remained.

Sissako next looks for Baribanga at Biker's bar, the "bar with 12 doors," through which so many in this disrupted land have passed at one time or another. An older man, who also studied in the Soviet Union, suggests that Baribanga has probably become lost in the immensity of Angola; for him life seems like a process of becoming lost, losing ideologies, losing one's way. He is the first of a series of Angolan grassroots philosophers who seem to be working out personal philosophies to take the place of the certainties destroyed by the war. We meet, for example, an old Cape Verdean immigrant and his Portuguese wife of 50 years, who comments that he has watched many people leave Angola and soon he will be leaving too since every human is in the end just a passer-by on earth.

Everywhere Sissako looks he finds evidence of dislocation. He meets two orphans, by definition disconnected from their origins. Nandinho lost his parents in the war and joined the multitudes of children living on the streets; he is now staying with his uncle - but we can't be sure for how long. Sissako's driver Eurice, was adopted by a European who left him his house and car when he returned to Portugal in 1975. Although he has always dreamed of being a Formula One driver, the realities of Angola being what they are, he has had to content himself with driving a taxi across a landscape littered with painful memories.

Sissako seems especially interested in why people of mixed race or European background have remained in Angola - perhaps because he himself has left Africa for Europe and finds himself a minority there. He meets a mulatto businessman who left when the Marxist MPLA came to power but returned to reconstruct the country. A Brazilian who came in the '20s has seen all his sons leave but cannot abandon the village he is proud to have helped build. We meet a large extended family of widely varied skin tones who live in a village so cut off they are amazed that someone from the great world beyond should want to film them; for them there was never an option to leave.

Finally, Sissako encounters an old woman who seems to symbolize the Angola he is discovering. She tells us most people assumed she had been paralyzed in the war because she did not move but one day she heard some music from her youth and broke into a dance which she performs for us. Although Sissako had gone to Angola seeking his old friend and his old hopes, he has made new friends and found a different kind of hope. The old black and white photograph he has clung to throughout the film has been eclipsed by the vivid colors of the country in front of his camera. He has found an Africa at ground zero, bereft of ideologies and illusions, much of its past destroyed by the catastrophes of colonialism or civil war, but possessed of an irrepressibly resilient spirit, the hopeful Africa of Baribanga but in an unexpected form.

On his last day in Angola, Sissako learns that Baribanga, the man he set out to find, is living not in Angola but in the former East Germany. In the film's last scene, Sissako finally meets his old friend but we are afforded only a glimpse of him. Baribanga tells him in Russian that he too will return to Angola soon and Sissako comments: "I heard him pronounce in the language we learned together in the name of old illusions, the word 'return' just like an accomplishment." Baribanga and perhaps Sissako himself, have endured a painful odyssey through various post-colonial utopias and nightmares, only to return to a home which resembles neither their memories or their dreams. Home, Africa, has ironically been redefined as a place we build each day.
An online facilitator guide is available for this title.
"In the course of these images, the search for a lost friend is transformed into an exquisite portrait of a country not often in the headlines. We learn much about the life and people of Angola and become attached to them."
"Rostov-Luanda is a discovery of Africa. Director Sissako, using the style of a traveler's diary, provides an insight into Angola unlike that of any television journalist. Each encounter creates an intimate portrait where the history of Portuguese colonialism constantly comes up but never in an academic way... Angola as you have never seen it."
Le Monde


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