ROSTOV / LUANDA   Notes for a Film

Abderrahmane Sissako

In the next few pages I will set out some landmarks for a future voyage, which will take filmic form during the upcoming shooting of the documentary film Rostov-Luanda.

These notes follow upon a few weeks of location scouting in Angola, several stays in Mauritania and in Mali, and also upon the memory which is at the origin of this project: the memory of my encounter with Baribanga, a young Angolan student and revolutionary whom I met sixteen years ago now, in the train carrying us from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don. This memory is what impels the quest at the heart of my project.

It will allow the story of the film to unfold on two intermingling planes: the narrative of an encounter with Angola and a personal "retrospection" taking up some of the major threads of the African continent's recent history.

The choice of this form of story will doubtless place me, in the course of this filmmaker's journey, face to face with situations that may question, throw into doubt, or blur the imaginary sketch that constitutes a project like this.

Angolan reality, on the one hand, is so mobile, unpredictable, and far from the references afforded by the culture of West Africa, that the insight of the gaze will have to search beyond the picturesque to detect the sensible evidence of the divisions that interact in the country's present situation.

On the other hand, recent African history is expressed with unusual violence and confusion in this country, and perhaps even more so today, now that the end of the war reveals the depth of the imprint that three decades of combat and wartime culture have left on the country and its population. Facing this confusion and violence, I will attempt to see the extent to which it represents not the particular conditions of the Angolans, but a destiny common to many African countries.

These few words no doubt describe a project of staging my own situation of discovery, along with a confrontation between imaginary and visible realities. Such a mediation by a clearly identified gaze, narrating its own discovery, seems necessary to me.

>From the very outset, this self-staging will allow for the inscription of the differences that make this story possible: the difference that separates French-and Portuguese-speaking Africa, the difference of a man living in exile, of one whose aim is to render visibleóto himself first of allórealities which have remained invisible.

Among these realities, I wish to bring about, through the form of the film, a cinematographic return to a particular reality, that of the common hope which animated the African peoples in the times of decolonization. Not for nostalgia's sake, but because I believe it necessary and good to express in images and sounds the idea of a destiny, after this destiny has been wounded by clashes, wars, and submission. In my best guess, expressing this idea means anchoring the filmic description in the place of common memory where individual destinies meet, like the destiny of Baribanga, my own destiny, or that of many other young Africans of our generation.

The narrator's presence will not be inscribed in the film by an image but by an off-screen voice. This voice will be neither commentary nor contemplation, but a kind of punctuation lending rhythm to the film through elementsófactual or notówhich are chosen in order to direct the question one way or the other.

It is not a matter here of sketching the film's trajectory in advance, for wandering by its very definition depends on chance. Rather it is a matter of providing a few benchmarks, physical or biographical, from which the story can radiate outwards.

These benchmarks are chosen precisely to permit the mobility of the imagination, and also to give it a few safe havens.

Benchmarks, meeting points, apprehended according to the capacity I have glimpsed in them for provoking encounters between myself and unknown witnesses, encounters that will open up new horizons. Benchmarks for a quest in which Baribanga occupies the position of a vanishing point.


I am particularly attached to the idea of waiting as a cinematographic device. Sharing the tensions of waiting allows for an enduring affinity between the persons and places. Then one is no longer under the constraint to capture reality, but in a position of exchange which feeds on the most diverse of signs.

This disposition of waiting allows for the creation of situations in which a biographical tale can unfold, not as an interview but as a song.

This is what I felt possible with Pinto, whom I met during location scouting.

The security situation being what it is, in Luanda you must be protected day and night. Pinto was our bodyguard. One day I found myself alone, without an interpreter.

I didn't speak Portuguese, and there was no African language we both understood in common. Several times already we had found ourselves alone together, unable to speak. This time, as on other such occasions, we remained silent, me seated in a corner of the living room, he engaged in field-stripping his pistol, its eight bullets spread out on the table.

After some time, we began to express ourselves by gestures. He mimed the way he used his gun. Little by little, the barriers broke down.

Pinto let me know his age, then his date of birth, the day, and so on. I insisted, to verify the coincidence: Pinto was born the same day as me.

Though it would be impossible to reproduce the events of that evening, what had happened gave rise to my desire to make room in the film for biographical stories that would be neither interviews, nor testimonials.

Speaking to me in gestures, Pinto displayed an incredible will to make me grasp the absurdity of the war. This made his story not a discourse addressed to me, but the spirit of a man turned against death.

Pinto is representative of a generation of men, particularly peasants, who have known nothing but waróand whom, once the war has ended, can do nothing but attempt to sell their "talents," day by day.

He told his story. His life as an MPLA soldier, his detention in the UNITA camps, his escape, his dramatic homecoming to his village after five years in the army to discover his father and mother killed, his house completely destroyed.

A few words, in Portuguese, and many gestures, to make me understand. As he evoked his parents' death his eyes reddened, the tears welled up...

The war is in Pinto's eyes, in his silence when the memories flood back, in the incessant repetition of "unita unita mal unita mal unita mal..." It is written on his face, in an expression that reminded me of the women in the southówhere Pinto comes fromóthe women whom I had often seen as I left The Biker, waiting for I don't know what.


Mauritania is the country of my birth.

It is also (because I grew up in Mali) a country whose most common language I do not speak: the language of Hassaniya, or Mauritania Arabic, which is spoken by the members of my family.

I have to begin this voyageóand the filmic storyóby an act of return. I wish to film this project of an Angolan quest, in the form of a prologue. How to do so?

Kiffa and Oualata are the lands of originómaternal and paternalówhich I only know through the family chronicle.

It is from here that I will leave for Angola.

The idea is to anchor the story in the evocation of a multiple departure. The first, my own, just after my birth. Another, sixteen years ago now, when I left Mauritania (where I had lived for just a year) to take the road of exile toward what was then the Soviet Union. Finally, the departure which will lead us to Angola.

By designating Kiffa and Oualata as places of departure, I wish to inscribe the idea of belonging in the film. Not as a local tie, not as an existential community, but as the possibility to define a larger belonging through the departure from a given place.

To a large degree, making a film is always for me an attempt to translate an experience of exile, of foreignness, of otherness.

The desire to make films, and the way I have made them, has to do with the experience of traveling, as seen through the eyes of the nomad whom I try to remain.

Beginning the film with a prologue situated on these territories which I did not know but from which I come, is an attempt to use the cinema to show Africa as a place of belonging, in both geographical and historical terms.

The prologue calls for a third person. It's a question of language, because I don't know the language. So there is need for a mediator. As I leave for Angola, I bring a little of my own history with me, plus the history of my origins and of the origins of my family. This mediator, necessary to complete the exchange, is part of my projected voyage to Angola, in return for the history that will be transmitted to me.

Therefore I decided to construct the prologue with the presence of one of my aunts, who was my nursemaid and who is a repository of my family's history.

Her intercession will help me to discover more easily these places of origin, and the history that is bound to them. Thus it will be possible to state the intention of my trip. The exchanges will allow the viewer to take stock of the givens at the basis of the story; but they will also allow me to set forth immediately in the film's exposition the stakes that have led me to undertake this journey.

Without any recourse to an off-screen voice, the prologue will situate the temporal elements of the story and of the narration: the duration of a trip, which will be suffused with historical time.

In sum, it will be an opening song.

Through the phases of its elaboration, the spectator will in a sense be witness to the symbolic preparations for a departure.

It is important for me to proceed in this way, because filming the departure means registering the promise of a return. The form of this return will be the completion of a voyage that will take the form of a film.

To depart, to travel, is in a certain way to chose between the questions that accompany us, those we leave behind, and those we forget. It may be the same for this prologue in Mauritania: which are the questions that will accompany me? With which questions must I part ways?


In the center of Luanda is "The Biker," discovered during location scouting.

It's more than a bar (the oldest in the capital); it is a theater in which to capture the echo of the city's daily life. This hulk from the early twentieth century and the two administrative buildings that surround it are survivals from the colonial regime, a condition that would seem to be shared by Roberto Passas, its septuagenarian proprietor, who inherited the bar from his father.

We enter here by one door, to leave by another. The main room of The Biker covers over three hundred square meters, with three openings that give out on different aspects of the diurnal and nocturnal life of the capitalólike a compass indicating the city's cardinal directions. These three openings are identifiable by the particular light that each provides.

On one side is the activity of the market filtering through the entryway, through which frequently step vendors, the bearers of rare goods, of products from the provinces or cast-off commodities gleaned through some unimaginable stroke of luck. On the other, the gaze wanders out toward a wide avenue, or welcomes the clients who come, singly or in groups, to seek the sure hospitality of Roberto Passas.

On the threshold of this entryway, I often saw a group of dignified women who remained partially outstretched on the ground, apparently indifferent to the surrounding bustle. What were they waiting for, in such a position under the watchmen's shadow? They most likely came from a southern province, as their dress gave one to believe.

An enigmatic encampment: women whose vacant and resolute faces bear witness to the existence of a human geography whose movement, dictated by the laws of necessity and survival, reveals the presence of the country's history and of its human landscape.

A third entry, facing the bar, gives out to a narrower passageway, frequented by beggars and by thieves who occasionally dare to enter the establishmentónow with an eye, now with a few measured steps.

At certain hours of the day the place becomes a canteen, a meeting spot where we can rub shoulders with soldiers, policemen, streetside vendors, beggars, doctors, and journalists.

This place is peopled with vestiges. There, a pool table in ruins. It serves the boss as a register, where he counts the devaluated notes handed over in bundles to pay the least of tabs.

Here, a pinball machine. Protected behind a locked grate. What mysterious spring of fate has made this machine so precious that it should be kept this way, apart from any players, stood up like a relic in a grated reliquary?

There, another pool table. When it isn't crowded in play, Roberto's family gather around it, his young wife and his children, who seem more like "grandchildren."

The Biker will be our home port. We'll leave from there, we'll come back to there to leave again, toward new districts of the city, toward the provinces. Waiting, meeting-place, encounters. The Biker's movement, its crowd and the scenic layout that transforms it in a second from a theater to the wings, all these things lend themselves to the staging of time, which is indispensable for the narration of this voyage.

In general, The Biker is frequented by the middle classes of the capital.

It is important to remain there as long as possible (one week) and to film by stages, so as to get the clients (and the personnel) accustomed to the crew, and not to miss any of the crowd's different waves.

Two figures provide the essential benchmarks: Roberto Passas and Beto Gorgel, a famous journalist and editorialist, well known to many Angolans.

Between the two men there is a constant dialogue, although it is interrupted by frequent eclipses when one or the other leaves. Or rather, there is a recital mingling the two parallel voices of these two men, a recital which transforms into a dialogue through shared remembrance.

Despite the physical absence of one or the other, the dialogue between the two continues to unfold under the ears of the listener seated at the bar, offering two complementary voices of Angola.

The political history of Angola and the personal history of Beto Gorgel are closely intertwined. After a period in Denmark, Beto Gorgel chose to live in Angola. His observations on the current situation of the country offer a glimpse of its future. To see this future in another light we must turn our eyes to Roberto and his family, his young children and his black wife. Here the mixture of racesómétissageótakes on a profound and troubling meaning. Despite the violence of the war of decolonization, the Portuguese presence has left quite different marks than any other European colonization in Africa.

Does the métissage which bears witness to this difference allow us to foresee a swift and lasting pacification of the country? Probably not.

Yet this métissageórare in black Africaóis a constant fact that can be observed. The colonial past seems to be inscribed in the memory of the Angolan population in a very different way than elsewhere in black Africa. This observable reality is, to my eyes, a sign of hope, the visible testimony of a possibility.

The same holds for Russian and Soviet culture. Amidst a conversation, suddenly, the accents of the Russian language are heard intermixed with the voices of a group of men, highlighting the discreet role of this more recent contribution to a culture of métissage.


The man whom everyone knows as Maré is a wandering musician. Blind, some forty years of age, he wears dark glasses and is always dressed in a black suit and a white shirt.

>From door to door, from market to market, he sings of his country, of love, of a young girl's beauty.

Maré's biography is vague and contradictory, depending on who you talk to.

The confusion will be cleared up by Maré himself. For some, he was born blind. For others, he was the victim of an accidentómaybe during the war? For others, his blindness is the result of disease (which would also be the reason for his divorce)... Indeed, a careful ear to the words of his songs may allow us to confirm the frequenytheme of abandonment in love.

The first time I met Maré was by chance, without knowing his importance and the role of his songs during the war, when oral transmission, metaphor, and song made up for the lack of modern communication, or for censorship by the enemy.

It was on the boardwalk along the shore, slightly outside the city. I saw a man dressed all in black, accompanied by a young boy. Soon they sat down to practice, all alone. A few people passed at a distance, I had the impression they avoided bothering the two. I was the only spectator.

It was much later, after having searched for this blind singer whose name I did not know, that I finally picked up his tracks, in The Biker, when I recognized one of his songs on the lips of Beto.

Beto knows this character wellólike many others, he calls him Ray Charles.

Beto will lead us to Maré through his songs. These songs return frequently to his lips on various occasions, to evoke a feeling or an impression which is shared by the majority.

In this country, the love song resounds in everybody's ears like the epic tale of each one's suffering, experienced over the long years of war.

Separation, distance, the abandoned home, the lost harvests and ungathered fruits, the arrival of hard times: these recurring themes in Maré's repertoire are understood as belonging equally to the tale of love and to the collective culture inherited from the time of war.

Each meeting in the film, each chance phrase or gaze, can bring us out of or back to a given situation.

This formal principle of polyphony will help convey the dynamic of the quest, and its wandering.

Maré's song will occupy an important place in this polyphony, as a rhythmic element, an echo to the stories of other characters.

Maré will help us to get into motion.

A long search will no doubt be necessary to meet him.

Maré's songs seem to be known by all, but the figure himself is almost impossible to grasp. Thus, to go off looking for him is to head outóas I have done several timesóin search of a voice, in a particular discovery of the Angolan capital, where everyone knows him and everyone has seen him just before your arrival. A capital that Maré peoples with his song.

The blind Maré will tell us how he "saw" and lived through the war. He will tell us of his travels through the land. The story of Maré the blind man will lead us to Huambo, a city long occupied by the "Unita" movement led by Jonas Savimbi.


I will evoke my existence in the Soviet Union through Natalia Lvovna. In Rostov-on-Don, this woman taught Baribanga and myself the Russian language.

I will call Natalia Lvovna from Mauritaniaóor from Luandaóat a precise moment fixed in advance with a Russian filmmaker friend, who in a way will be my correspondent.

In Rostov, with the help of a small crew, this correspondent will film the reception of my call and my conversation with Natalia, who will have some photos bearing witness to the first few months.

This absence from Rostov, the temporal and intimate place of our meeting with Baribanga, seems to me the best way to make visible a vanished past.