An ephemeral library in the streets of Paraíso
In Angola, local governments are appointed by the central authorities. This means that Angolan citizens are only called to cast their ballot once every five year, for the general elections that will allocate a certain number of seats for each party in parliament. The party that gets the most votes then elects the President and from that point, basically all executive decisions taken in the form of Presidential Decrees. Angolan political analysts often speak of the “atypical Constitution” that allows this highly centralised system to be called a democracy despite the obvious structural denial of the citizens’ voices.
Adopted in 2010, the Constitution makes provision for the implementation of democratically elected local governments at the municipal level. In Portuguese, this strata of decentralised government is called autarquias. However, eleven years later, and while promised several times, the elections autárquicas have not been organised. They have become the elephant in the room in all political debates, both in parliament and on the streets. Several groups of activists across the country now mobilise around the motto “Jovens pelas Autarquias” (Youth for the Autarquias).
How to mobilise local communities?
In Luanda, I’ve been following diverse members of this network (individual or collective) for more than two years now. I try to follow the numerous activities organised across Luanda, ranging from press conferences to internal trainings, and from public debates to virtual campaigns. The video I present here shows a small event organised by a group called Projecto AGIR, that works in the Cacuaco municipality. Their goal is to educate local residents on the question of autarquias but also to campaign for their own future candidate.
This video is the first of two vignettes showing the two faces of their action. On the one hand, as can be seen here, Projecto AGIR positions itself as a community-based movement promoting non-partisan education and addressing the basic needs of local communities. They pride themselves in organising charity events such as soup kitchens, COVID prevention door-to-door campaigns or free legal assistance. Here, I show the setting up of an ephemeral library where any passer-by is welcome to pick a book to read on site. No questions are asked and the book selection ranges from religious essays to children comics.
However, the library features a majority of historical and sociological essays and that is a good reminder of the second face of Projecto AGIR’s general mission. Unequivocally, the library includes some of the most vocal denunciations of the power abuse perpetrated by the ruling party since independence. Titles such as Diamantes de Sangue by renowned human-rights activist Rafael Marques or Sou eu mais livre, então by rapper and activist Luaty Beirão are emblematic of the pro-democracy movement in Angola. The ephemeral library does not only promote a culture of reading or an ethos of public service, it also seeks to raise consciousness around social issues and to champion critical thinking against dominant narratives. The second video yet to come will present more precisely the political content that is only suggested here. Projecto AGIR – here represented by Selma who plays the role of Master of Ceremony at the end of the video – mobilises classic political tools: public lectures (from members of the project and/or guest speakers), mottos (“Minha Comunidade, Minha Prioridade” / “My community, my priority”), physical and virtual marketing (T-shirts, banners, etc).
Filmmaking as research method
I’ve been using video recording for a long time now. In the (abundant… and often redundant) literature on visual ethnography, video recording is generally presented as a great tool to complement live observation as it allows to capture a given situation in images and sounds. The footage collected can for exemple help to further analyse the exact material organisation of a particular setting or to better unravel the various layer of sounds and voices that characterise a landscape.
Visual ethnography is also commended for its potential in terms of writing and sharing a research project. The researcher-filmmaker can for example produce small vignettes in order to present particular moments, important places, or key actors (the present video would fall under this category). He or she can also produce feature films allowing a full presentation of the research (and here, please bear in mind that there are many different ways to write ‘scientific movies’ beyond the classic ‘National Geographic documentary’ style). Whatever the skills and interests of the researcher might be, I’d argue that from the moment he or she chooses to actually edit her footage, new questions arise around the necessity to build a narrative that fits the constraints of filmmaking (think: story-telling scaffolding, cinematic stylisation, didactic versus impressionist narration etc). Here, I opted for a minimalist scenario that follows the chronology of the event and conveys the simplicity of the means the activists have at their disposal.
Of course, filming also creates strong biases in the way the ethnographer behave on the field, both spatially (some shots may require unusual crouching or climbing here and there) and socially (the basic rule is “if I’m filming, don’t expect me to utter a word”). In the present case, it was actually the first time I got to experiment my new camera equipment in a real situation. I must say I was very pleased by how José and his colleagues let me “do my stuff” without much concern. I felt our relationship was ‘mature’ enough to allow more video recording as part of my participant observation. Technically, I still have a lot to learn, especially when it comes to the audio capture (my shotgun mic, mounted directly on the camera, is really not ideal for recording general audio landscape), and of course in terms of stabilising my frames and creating more rhythm in the final edition. Maybe, I’ll write more on this one day.