Angolan Cinemas: Past and Present Tense

Cultural spaces and historic patrimony have not fared well during Angola's post-war reconstruction and development.

The photo that graces the cover of Angola Cinemas by Walter Fernandes and Miguel Hurst (a new coffee table book on Angola’s cinema spaces published by Goethe-Institut and edited by Christiane Schulte, Gabriele Stiller-Kern, and Miguel Hurst), says it all: futurist, modernist, unfinished, and abandoned. This is the state of so much in Angola… or had been until the war ended in 2002 and the oil boom hit. Angola’s redevelopment and reconstruction has been the subject of both gooey Africa-rising praise and stinging jeremiads. Angola has witnessed lots of construction. But cultural spaces, and historical patrimony in general, have not fared so well.

Angola Cinemas brings a fresh focus to the historic spaces of film viewing. Angola is not known for being a center of film production currently nor in the past but by 1975 there were 50 theatres. Now largely moribund, a handful are being revived. Brief entries by Maria Alice Correia & F. João Guimarães and by Paula Nascimento (all architects), center on the distinct architectural elements of Angolan cinemas: the cine-esplanda (open-air cinemas) and the late colonial tropical modernist architecture that shaped cinemas and urban space more generally in Angola (and other Portuguese colonies). They look at the key social role of the cinema in people’s lives and as a space for a diverse set of arts: theatre, film, and music. Nascimento argues for preservation based not just on the physical space but on that cultural dynamism: “Restoring them means not only recovering their architectural forms, but equally their functional forms: it is important to establish a dialectic between the future and the past among their new users.” (21)

With nearly 160 color plates, this is a beautiful book. You get a sense of the spaces: their faded glory, the unfulfilled potential, of the event waiting to happen. But this book isn’t just pretty. It’s a cry to act. It’s unfinished business. Not just because some of the cinemas were never finished and never opened (like the stunning Cine Estúdio on the book’s cover or the Cinema Infante Sagres, said to be the largest cinema on the continent in 1975), but because the book marks the beginning of a collective research project on these theatres that asks for public participation via their website. Here too we see the ambitions of a larger, continent wide project.

What’s missing from the book is the social buzz and energy of filled space. Given what the architects and editors’ entries tell us, as well as what the annexed information in the back of the book relates, how best to represent the rich world of cinema going? Some of these cinemas are operational so it must have been possible to take some photos of Cine Atlântico packed to the gills during the Luanda International Film Festival or the Cine Cazenga, renovated for the film Assaltos em Luanda II in 2008, to give us a sense of cinema in the musseques. The contrast of a lively showing would have been equally as sobering as the garbage and dust thick interiors.

Of course, sometimes absences are presences. Like the missing photo of the Cinema Restauração, the largest functioning cinema in the late colonial period and now the Parliament since independence. I suppose ‘security’ concerns meant it couldn’t be photographed but the absence of the photo and the silence around it are telling. They speak to the narrow confines in which the project operates: both political power and economic muscle reside largely with members of the MPLA (whose images, symbols, and colors appear in some of the photos to make clear that cinema spaces are more frequently used for convening political commissions than cultural publics). But the absence of cinematic space will never be a present. What José Mena Abrantes said of Angolan films is true of cinemas as well, their “past deserves a better present.” (“Cinema Angolano: Um Passado a Merecer Melhore Presente,” Lisboa: Cinemateca Portuguesa, 1987)

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