The forgotten filmmakers of the anti-colonial movement

They need to be in the pictures, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every step of making a film. African women need to be everywhere – they need to be the ones talking about their issues.

This quote from the late great filmmaker Sarah Maldoror forms the ideological foundation for the new series from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cinematheque In the pictures, behind the camera: the political cinema of women, 1959-1992. This period was a rich time for revolutionary cinema, when radicals used their cameras to campaign against imperialism and for radical social change. Programmed by Yasmina Price, the retrospective highlights in particular the works made by women during this period, with particular emphasis on films that have been rarely seen and/or recently restored. Existing in a left-wing space does not guarantee that female voices get their due, and so on many levels this program acts as a valuable historical fix.

Although the retrospective only lasts a week, In the Images, Behind the Camera covers an impressive swath of the Global South from the Cold War era, with films from Tunisia, Senegal, Venezuela, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, India, etc. The spearhead of the series is Maldoror’s 1972 anti-colonial feature Sambizanga (associated with his first short, 1968’s Monangambée). Based on a short story by Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira, it is set against the backdrop of the 1961 Angolan War of Independence, following a woman going from prison to prison in search of her resistant husband, ignorant that the Portuguese police have already killed him. Maldoror collaborated on the script with her husband Mário Pinto de Andrade, who brought his own experiences of war as a freedom fighter. With Sambizanga, Maldoror became the first woman to direct a feature film in Africa.

Since Surname Viet First name Nam (1989), dir. Trinh T. Minh-ha

This is not even the only “first” of the program. The hour of liberation has come (1974) is the first film directed by an Arab woman to play in Cannes. Lebanese filmmaker Heiny Srour and her team traveled in Oman, at the time in the middle of the Dhofar Rebellion, documenting conditions in areas controlled by communist rebels. Acting in opposition to the ossified and British-manipulated Sultanate of Oman, the Dhofar Liberation Front enacted an impressive series of reforms and social programs in its territory before its eventual defeat. Srour’s film is a vital document of one of the many promising but short-lived revolutionary movements that rose and fell during the Cold War.

Another first — the first feature film by a Cuban woman — questions a society that has successfully defended its revolution. With One way or another (also 1974), Afro-Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez crafted a fiction/non-fiction hybrid Marxist romance between a teacher and a factory worker, finding friction in the fact that national development does not automatically result in a more equal society.

Since One way or another (1974), dir. Sara Gomez

Other films in the series examine the issues of life within diasporas and colonial states. 1989 documentary by Trinh T. Minh-ha Surname Viet First name Nam is a reflection on displacement, featuring five Vietnamese women living in the United States. The film freely mixes interviews with its subjects with staged scenes in which they read English translations of interviews with women still living in Vietnam. In Patoo! (1983), Maori director Merata Mita documents a cross section of several overlapping social movements during anti-apartheid protests against a South African rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981. Each of these films tackles a question that still resonates today, demonstrating the enduring power of revolutionary cinema and how damaging it is to overlook women’s contributions to these movements.

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