12 September 2007

Angolan Films and Filmed in Angola

We recently embarked on a project to watch all of the Angolan or Angola-related films we could get our hands on. The project is generally motivated by simple interest but Ms. R's also been able to justify it somewhat in terms of research as it's generally useful to her work to have a handle on some of the ways that Angola and the civil war have been portrayed in media. We were able to find films in the Film, Media and Video Resources for African Studies Database at Emory University and by doing a variety of searches for "Angola" in country, description, location, etc at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website. We were able to find copies of the films at our local, independent video rental store, through Netflix, and through interlibrary loan. Here's what we've watched so far:

Angolan Films:

O Herói (The Hero) (2004) directed by Zézé Gamboa won the Sundance Grand Jury prize for World Cinema. It follows parallel stories of a young boy and a soldier with an amputated leg trying to put their lives together in Luanda after the end of the conflict. It deftly packs in a tremendous number of the challenges facing Angolans (then and now) without interrupting the flow of the narrative. I especially admired Gomboa's ability to avoid tipping into the overly-dramatic or the unrealistically optimistic, though the resolution somewhat avoids the challenges the characters will facing going forward.

Na Cidade Vazia (Hollow City) (2004) directed by Maria João Ganga centers on the experience of a young orphan boy, N'Dala, that has run away from the mission that transported him to Luanda from the provinces for care. In stumbling through the strange new city he befriends a variety of people including another boy, a fisherman, and a criminal. By the time the end of the film arrives and the nun that's been searching for him is about to find him, N'Dala has found himself in more trouble than he realizes, despite his best efforts. This is a sad and tense film without a happy resolution but, like O Herói, has some wonderful views of the city and gives a picture of one life there.

Bad Action Flicks Set in Angola:

First, a note: these films are terrible. I mean terrible. But, there is something you can do to make them more entertaining: Follow the bad guy. These movies come at an incredibly difficult time for Hollywood; the cold war has more or less ended and the terror wars haven't yet begun. So, who, prey tell, is going to serve as the go-to bad dudes in all those B-movies? "Well, hell," Hollywood thinks to itself, "There's still a war in Angola! The Russians and Cubans are still on fighting on the opposite side from us! Let's go there!" And, well, it almost worked except for the fact that Americans had little or no idea about the Angolan civil war, and that the who's fighting whom was pretty complicated. It's hard to be a "good guy" if you're fighting with the diamond-funded rebels. So, the "good guys" and the "bad guys" in these movies are different both between films and, in most cases, within films. It's hard to keep track of, but that's OK; you'll need something to do during the show to keep yourself from gouging your eyes out.

Who knew that when, as kids, a friend and I decided that Red Scorpion (1989) staring the awe(or cringe)-inspiring Dolph Lundgren was easily be the best movie ever, that we had unwittingly committed ourselves to spending weekend after weekend after weekend watching a film set in Angola? Not us! We were just in it for Dolph's bad-assed-ness and the explosions! Well, well years later I've decided to head to Angola and discovered that Dolph is the actor to hire if you're setting a film there. Let's not mince words: this film is terrible. A specially trained Russian super-weapon (Dolph) is sent on an assassination mission and fails after which he is betrayed by his government. He escapes into the bush where he nearly dies. He's saved by a local tribe and initiated as a warrior. The tribe is subsequently massacred by the Russians. This terrible personal tragedy allows Dolph to see the beauty of the land, and so he joins the struggle of the local people (lead by the man he failed to assassinate at the beginning of the film, no less) against the intruding government(s). The Russians then attack a village and succeed in killing the local leader, sending Dolph into a fit of rage. Massive explosions ensue, Dolph kills more or less everyone. What's not to love? Special props, by the way, to the hilarious (read: terrible) portrayal of the American journalist here by M. Emmet Walsh.

If after seeing Red Scorpion and remembering back to Rocky IV you think that Dolph is one-dimensional, Russian-playing muscle-head, perhaps his performance in Sweepers (1998) will convince you of his tremendous versatility. Playing an American and the ultimate mine sweeping expert, Dolph goes on a bender after losing his son to a minefield accident. American Michelle arrives on the scene in search of a classified mine design that's gone missing. In the course of sobering up Dolph to elicit his help in finding the mine and running from various bad guys, they uncover a mine manufacturing and smuggling operation and fall in love. They bring down the illegal operation the only way Dolph knows how: blowing up everything in sight. The best part of this film is that the trailer included on the DVD shows you every important scene in the film, so you can just watch that instead and save yourself 90 minutes you'll never recover.

There's no more Dolph at this point, but there is a terrible Ernest Borgnine performance in Skeleton Coast (1987). Ernest plays an aging former soldier who heads to Angola to mount a private mission to rescue his son, a captive CIA operative, from a heavily guarded fort. His private militia includes a classic set of ass-kickers (introduced in a hilarious pan sequence) like Muscle-bound Ex-Marine Guy, Crazy Guy that Likes to 'Xlplode Stuff, Technology Specialist Gadget Guy, Ninja Martial-Arts Asian Guy, Gutsy "I don't give a damn" Black Dude, and Tough-ass Hot Blond Chick with Big Rack (shower scene included!). Along they way they drive through the desert, smuggle some diamonds, drive through the desert, get help from the rebel army, walk through the desert, steal a plane, and, oh, fly over the desert. The ending is completely confounding, but it involves imitating Cubans, the good guys win, and Ernest gets the girl (more-or-less).

SNL Season 1:

The last thing we've watched (so far!) are excerpts from the very first season of Saturday Night Live where during Weekend Update Chevy Chase tries on three separate occasions to connect with a reporter live in Luanda. The first time Chevy reaches a reporter in her American home, the second time no one except a janitor is in the office in Luanda because of the time difference, and the third time the reporter is sexually accosted (eventually willingly) by a horny mercenary during a live interview. These scenes are very brief and have little or nothing to do with Angola. We were, though, very impressed by the first season of SNL. We learned that we hate Dick Cavett and we loved the live performances by Jimmy Cliff and Bill Withers. Highly recommended!

11 September 2007

Media Links for Angola

As I've mentioned elsewhere, the amount of web-available news and information from and about Angola is exploding. When we prepped for our first trip in 2005 there was little or no information available online; recently I've been able to do things like look at satellite images of Luanda from Google Maps, listen to live, streaming radio, watch a streaming evening news cast, and even browse a budding online classifieds site. I'll be sharing more about these resources in coming posts, but I wanted to start out with some information about links to current Angola news and some of the Angola-based blogs that I've checked out.


My primary method for following news from Angola is with Angola-specific RSS feeds from a variety of the usual suspects. You can view the feeds I track as a regular webpage here or you can import my current feeds into your feed reader with this file. These are the sites that I'm currently tracking:

BBC News
Human Rights Watch
Relief Web

My favorite, though, might be watching a stream of the local evening news. By following the "Multimedia" link on Televisão Pública de Angola's (TPA) website you can watch episodes of Telejornal, TPA's evening newscast. The updates can be intermittent (the last episode posted as of today is nearly a month old), but I find it to be very interesting with or without a thorough knowledge of Portuguese.


First and foremost, here are the blogs of Arthur and Jojonneke, our wonderful Dutch friends living in Luanda (in Dutch but with great pics! I use Babelfish to translate them to "English").

We recently had the pleasure of meeting Bostonians Robert and Beth who were in Lubango, Angola during 2006-07; they’re both doctors and Robert was there on Fulbright funding. Their blog is here but please be fore-warned about the graphic surgery photos.

There are other blogs out there with accounts of Angola by folks we don't know. Some of them have only occasional Angola posts and/or are no longer being updated with Angola content because their author has moved on to other adventures. They're fun to read because there's usually something here which overlaps with our own experience; for example, we stayed at the DW guest house in Huambo (2006) and had a snack at Bahia with Arthur and Jo (2007) -- both are mentioned on Kate's blog:

Nate Down There
Kate's Travel Blog
Tony and Lotty at large in Angola

The news links are good for just that, news. The blogs are much better for some sense of what life has been like lately in Angola and for pictures. I've got more sites with pictures and the like that I'll be posting soon, but the above sties are probably the best starting points.

As Músicas de Angola

I'm still trying to get a handle on the Angolan music scene and figure out what's from where, what's influenced by what, and who's who. Somewhat surprisingly the good ol' interweb and especially YouTube and Wikipedia have been tremendously helpful in getting the lay of the land. (The amount of information about Angola as well as the Angolan presence online is currently exploding -- more on this in other posts.) The best known and clearest thread in Angolan music runs from Semba to Kizomba to Kuduro, with Kuduro being the most recent incarnation. Here's where I'm at so far in figuring this all out.

Semba is commonly considered to be descendant from a Congo-Angolan dance style and has etymological roots in both Kimbundo ("pleasing, enchanting") and Kikongo ("honoring, revering"). It's highly prevalent in Angolan popular music and when spending time in Luanda folks frequently point out which songs on the radio are semba and Angolan. I've even had people clap for me the rhythm that they recognize as semba but I'll confess to not always being able to distinguish it in course of songs.

Kizomba music is generally slower than semba and also very romantic or sensual with the dance having a reputation as being quite technical. Kizomba is rooted in semba but also takes influence from Caribbean musics, specifically zouk. We've got a disc purchased on our last trip to Luanda called "Kizomba de Angola, disc 2" that's been in heavy rotation in the car this week (Big D loves it) with a nice melody turn on the lyric "Kuduro não da" (Kuduro won't do) about how semba's all right, kuduro is questionable, but kizomba -- kizomba is the way to be.

Kuduro, an aggressive rap music developed in Malange and highly influenced by Haitian rap, is the most recent pop music development. It's a relentless music with an unchanging beat and a rapid-fire lyric style. The music is somewhat grating for me but I've been listening to a fair bit of it to get to know it better. There are a fair number of YouTube videos featuring kuduro and they're my favorites because they frequently feature bairros (neighborhoods) and musseques (slums) that you don't see in the other videos and that are difficult for "tourists" to take pictures of because of concerns about the police and camera use. These videos best represent the neighborhood style in bairro popular where we stayed in 2005 with Arthur and where we've been on the streets outside of the main urban center.

I'm very much enjoying Angolan music right now. We bought 10-15 CDs on our last trip getting a variety of styles and artists. We met Alberto Teta Lando, the president of União Nacional dos Artistas e Compositores (UNAC), and he gave us a slew of recommendations as did Dª Alice and Paolo. For me the stylistic approach of Angolan music is still more recognizable than the rhythms. There's a vaguely "African" feel to the music but it's much less ornate than the prototypical West African musics. In addition to the beautiful simplicity, much of it is in minor modes and has a somewhat down atmosphere (even the quicker songs) which I really enjoy. I hear it as a somewhat serious music regardless of the lyric topic, and as mature and down to earth. Waldemar Bastos's Pretaluz was the first full album I heard by an Angolan artist and it represents well some of the things I hear (or at least it's colored my ears so much that you should check it out to know why I can't hear anything differently).

YouTube examples



  • Amazing kuduro dancing examples here and here

Best links for general listening: