“Film review” or why a work of fiction speaks to a geographer

The text below is the full-length version of a paper I originally wrote for the academic journal African Studies Review. It was actually the first time I was tasked with writing a “film review”. In our weird academic world, it is a common exercice to read other people’s work and then summarise and comment what we took from our reading. It is a task often given to junior researcher so they can get acquainted with academic style and with the principle of “peer-reviewing”. To be honest, I haven’t written many book reviews before and writing this piece demanded me quite a lot of time for I didn’t really know where to start. The more time I spent on it however, the more interested I got in the film and the more I enjoyed it.

Thanks to this work, I fought my shyness and got to be in touch with the producer Geração 80. Once a week, the company transforms its courtyard in an open air cinema, where emerging filmmakers and cinema enthusiasts get to discover the most recent films made in Angola, to discuss what “Angolan Cinema” mean and more broadly to grow the seeds of a cultural industry in the making.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=2crYKgRbpRI&feature=emb_logo

The movie Ar Condicionado, by Angolan director Fradique is the first feature movie produced by Geração 80, a production company based in Luanda and named after the decade of birth of its founders. The anecdote is of importance since it holds in itself the silent dream of emancipation of the men and women who were born in the midst of the civil war (1975-2002) but who entered adulthood at the time of the ceasefire (2002). Ar Condicionado tells a story of dreams and of dreamers.

The first dream is that of Fradique, the director himself. In his words, Ar Condicionado is « a reminder that our city is made up of people, memories and not empty, glazed skyscrapers, inspired by soap operas or American films » (Geração 80 press kit). Fradique makes no mystery of who the main character is. His film is an homage to Luanda, his city of birth, that was so dramatically transformed in the 1980s and 1990s with the arrival of thousands of people displaced by the war. However, Fradique is a dreamer and the Luanda he portrays is not a city crushed by poverty and neglect. In Ar Condicionado, Luanda is both busy and contemplative, loud and silent, messy and meticulous.

Busy, loud, messy… how could it be otherwise? The film was shot in a building that sits right on one of the main streets of the city centre. There was little intervention made to the set. The sealed elevator, the graffitis on the walls, the labyrinth of electricity cables and water pipes in the backyard and the colourful clothes hung on the rooftop are common sight in the overpopulated buildings downtown Luanda. In that sense, Fradique’s dream is reminiscent of Rouch’s direct cinema experimentations. Most people who appear in the film actually play their own role, be it young boys running up and down the stairs, adolescent girls performing intricate clap-along-songs in the corridors, men playing ludo on the pavement or women cooking huge pots to be sold as take away lunches on the street. Ar Condicionado was able to capture the beating heart of urban life in Luanda, with its diastolic hopes and its systolic despairs. Immersive sequence shots, meticulous soundscapes and impeccable photography all contribute to this sensitive dive in the everyday.

Making off of Ar Condicionado – picture by Cafuxi ©️Geração80

What is the most admirable here though, is not the ability to capture ‘the reality’ but rather the cautious attempt to avoid romanticism and unmake the brutality of a bare documentary gaze. The insistant additional soundtrack derails our contemplative attention. The inclusion of silent sequences radically negates the ‘principle of reality’ of documentary cinema (Niney, 2009). Last but not least, the narrative backbone of the movie irremediably projects us into a world of fiction: air conditioners are mysteriously falling off the walls. Throughout the movie, crackling radios report on the unexplained phenomenon, feeding conspiracy theories and apocalyptic preaches. These anonymous radio voices are key to enter into a contract with the spectator: what initially looks like a realistic portrait of Luanda is in fact a dystopic illusion. In Ar Condicionado the city has reached its limits and the loud noise of ACs crashing on the ground is a reminder of how unsustainable the whole Angolan ‘system’ is (Schubert, 2018).

Cover of “The Transparents”, novel by Ondjaki that is the literary twin of Fradique’s movie.

Fradique explicitly borrows the codes of ‘magical realism’. Theorised to describe Latin America literature, magical realism has long been appropriated by Angolan writers. José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel Barroco Tropical and Ondjaki’s Os Transparentes undoubtedly influenced Ery Claver and Fradique, co-writers of Ar Condicionado. This appetite for fantasy eventually allows other dreams to emerge. The key dream is certainly that of Kota Mino (David Caracol), the repairman who is able to take advantage of the mysterious ‘pandemic’ of falling ACs. Kota Mino’s shop is a magic cave where dismounted ACs become the fuel of a fantastic machine that transports its users in a parallel world made of the memories of those who once owned the broken device. The machine embodies the very act of filmmaking. In Kota Mino’s dream, it doesn’t matter whether Luanda will overcome its plague.

Zezinha (Filomena Manuel) is much more interested in finding a prosaic end to her quest. She works as a maid in the house of an authoritarian boss who is infuriated by the loss of his AC. Zezinha’s unruffled deference contrasts with the coarse language of this man, but the contemplative slowness she puts in stirring her tea reveals her subtle capacity of resistance. Zezinha uses daydreaming as a shield against the aggressiveness of the boss. Instead of being locked in a cycle of fear and domination, Zezinha embarks Matacedo (José Kiteculo), the security guard, on her mission. Matacedo’s inertia then becomes her response to the boss’ scornful behaviour.

Matacedo is – to me – the character that best reveals the tension of the movie, oscillating between revolt and resignation. Although he is dressed as a security guard, he is best described as a handyman. He obliges to each and everyone who lives in the building. Skilful sequence shots show him taking groceries up the stairs, delivering heavy gas bottles, walking along dark corridors or bathing in the water falling from broken drainpipes. While Zezinha embodies the ‘quiet encroachment’ (Bayat 1999) of the working class. Matacedo’s silent ballet in and out the belly of the building doesn’t suggest any kind of revolt. On the contrary, it is as if his body slowly became one with the cement envelope. In a famous article, Abdu-Maliq Simone (2004) speaks of ‘people as infrastructure’ to describe how, in a context of systemic decay, it is the capacity of practical improvisation and social intersection of urban-dwellers that sustain life in African cities. Although I’m not sure Simone easily fits in the universe of magical realism claimed by Fradique as a source of inspiration, thinking of Matacedo as the keystone of the ‘infrastructure’ that allows Luanda to stand on its feet is to me a powerful way of returning to the director’s own dream.

« My desire is that the film may now join the fallen air conditioners and be part of the living memory of this city. », writes Fradique. In March 2020, Ar Condicionado’s premiered in Luanda. The screening conditions seemed to have been arranged by Matacedo himself. A projector and a screen were installed on the rooftop of the very building where the movie was shot. A vintage popcorn machine struggled to provide enough cups for all the people present that day. The public brought together the artsy network that gravitates around the collective Geração 80 and the inhabitants of the building who were the first witness and often the very actors of the movie. For the latter, the main interest of the night was obviously to see oneself and one’s relatives on a wide screen. Excitement was high. Laughters and screams erupted even in the most serious moments, far from the sacred silence observed by those who came from outside. To them, the film had another signification: Geração 80’s first feature film held the promise of encapsulating Angolan cinema avant-garde. No one at the time could have anticipated that the sudden loss of control on air would become the real scenario of a global pandemic. Eighteen months after its release, Ar Condicionado has indeed gained an entire new layer of signification.

In Fradique’s dystopic Luanda, hard work (Matacedo) and determination (Zezinha) might offer means of resistance against unexplained systemic disorder but they are never enough to actually change the situation. Even when he becomes vulnerable to the laws of nature, the boss never ceases to boss around. Only Kota Mino’s ingenuity opens the possibility of an escape. The metaphor is probably more striking in the COVID-19 pandemic context. If the declaration of a ‘state of national calamity’ has indeed reshuffled the cards in Angola, bosses remain bosses and the only escape remains in fiction.

When movie characters question the possibility of a revolt

Zezinha, Matacedo, and a fallen air conditioner. Still image from the movie ©️Geração 80

To a certain extent, a producer like Geração 80 has been able to take advantage of the voids left by those foreign companies who – like Zezinha’s boss – suddenly lost their privileged position. Thanks to the hard work and determination of the team, Ar Condicionado was selected in more than thirty film festivals all over the world. It won the Film Prize 2020 of the African Studies Association and received awards in festivals specialised in architecture (Lisbon Architecture Festival), sciences (Imagine Science Film Festival), and, of course, cinema (Luxor African Film Festival, Innsbruck International Film Festival). The most recent award however puts this international success in perspective. In October 2021, Ar Condicionado won the award of best feature film in the ‘Unitel Angola Move’ festival, one of the first Angolan film festivals on this kind. Reacting to this victory, Ngoi Salucombo, Geração 80 Creative Director stated: « we can go around the world but it is absolutely essential and always special when we are celebrated at home ».

Ar Condicionado has definitely fulfilled the expectations of those who, like Kota Mino, are keen to escape in the dreams and memories of others. But it is now time to find ways to make ‘the avant-garde’ meet ‘the frontline’ beyond the special atmosphere of an open air movie night. I sincerely hope that the hard work and the determination of Geração 80 will have a rippling effect beyond the protected spheres of indie cinema and reflexive visual anthropology. My dream, if I dare, would be that in the crumbling buildings of Luanda, bathing under the gutter or stirring one’s tea a little bit too slowly become acts of freedom rather than of necessity.


Some readings that Ar Condicionado made me think of….

  • Agualusa, José Eduardo, 2009, Barroco Tropical, Dom Quixot
  • Bayat, Asaf, 1999, The quiet encroachment of the ordinary, in Life As Politics, pp. 33-55
  • Niney, François, 2000, L’Épreuve du réel à l’écran. Essai sur le principe de réalité documentaire, De Boeck Université
  • Ondjaki, 2012, Os Transparentes, Editorial Caminho
  • Schubert, Jon, 2017, Working the System,, A political ethnography of the new Angola, Cornell University Press
  • Simone, Abdu-Maliq, People as Infrastructure. Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg, Public Culture, 16 (3), pp. 407-429


Cite this blog post
Chloé Buire (2022, April 7). “Film review” or why a work of fiction speaks to a geographer. Luanda Micro Lab. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/rfcu

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