They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. African women must be everywhere — they must be the ones to talk about their problems.
This quote from the late great filmmaker Sarah Maldoror forms the ideological foundation of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cinematheque’s new series In the Images, Behind the Camera: Women’s Political Cinema, 1959-1992. That timeframe was a rich period for revolutionary film, when radicals used their cameras to agitate against imperialism and for drastic social change. Programmed by Yasmina Price, the retrospective specifically highlights such works made by women during this time, with a particular emphasis on rarely seen and/or recently restored films. Existing within a leftist space is no guarantee that female voices get their due, and so on multiple levels, this program acts as a valuable historical corrective.
Though the retrospective runs only a week, In the Images, Behind the Camera covers an impressive breadth of the Cold War-era Global South, featuring films from Tunisia, Senegal, Venezuela, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, India, and more. Spearheading the series is Maldoror’s seminal 1972 anti-colonial feature Sambizanga (paired with her debut short film, 1968’s Monangambée). Based on a novella by Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira, it takes place against the backdrop of the 1961 Angolan War of Independence, following a woman going from jail to jail looking for her resistance fighter husband, unaware that the Portuguese police have already killed him. Maldoror collaborated on the script with her husband Mário Pinto de Andrade, who contributed his own experiences from the war as a freedom fighter. With Sambizanga, Maldoror became the first woman to make a feature film in Africa.
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That’s not even the only “first” in the program. The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974) was the first film directed by an Arab woman to play at Cannes. Lebanese filmmaker Heiny Srour and her crew traveled to Oman, at the time in the midst of the Dhofar Rebellion, documenting conditions in areas controlled by the communist rebels. Acting in opposition to Oman’s sclerotic, British-manipulated sultanate, the Dhofar Liberation Front enacted an impressive series of reforms and social programs within 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 arose and were beaten down over the course of the Cold War.
Another first — the first feature by a Cuban woman — interrogates a society that successfully defended its revolution. With One Way or Another (also 1974), Afro-Cuban director Sara Gómez crafted a fiction/nonfiction hybrid Marxist romance between a schoolteacher and a factory worker, finding friction in the ways that national development doesn’t automatically result in a more egalitarian society.
Other films in the series examine issues of living within diasporas and settler-colonial states. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 1989 documentary Surname Viet Given Name Nam is a rumination 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 who still live in Vietnam. In Patu! (1983), Māori director Merata Mita documents a cross-section of several overlapping social movements on display during anti-apartheid protests against a South African rugby tour in New Zealand in 1981. Each of these films touches on some issue that still resonates today, demonstrating the enduring power of revolutionary cinema, and how detrimental it is to forget women’s contributions to these movements.