With Freedom in Their Eyes; A photo-essay of Angola – Robert Kramer & Laurie Gitlin

An early victim of European expansion, Angola was ruled by Portugal for over 300 years (between the 1650s until the mid 1970s) which saw ever increasing exploitation of its natural resources and labour as the centuries passed and Portugal’s power in the world declined. Portuguese politics in the twentieth century was defined (and still is) by the Salazar dictatorship, which lasted for 40 years between 1928 and 1968. In order to bankroll his authoritarian and stagnating state, Salazar was heavily dependent on the revenue offered by the colonies which Portugal hung on to like grim death at a time when most of Africa had already gained independence. Inspired by the anti-colonial movements throughout Africa, Angola soon produced its own underground rebel group, the MPLA, which began to fight for an end to Portuguese rule. In the paranoia of a polarised Cold War world as Portugal was a member of NATO it meant that the MPLA naturally looked towards the Communist camp for support, which was forthcoming.

After the demise of Salazar in 1968, his protege Caetano took over and fully intended to keep the authoritarian show on the road. However the times-were-a-changing and the combination of a stagnating economy, rising oil prices after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, social unrest, the unpopular colonial wars and the disgruntled old-guard within the Salazar regime who felt they had been hard-done by the new guy, led to a military coup in 1974. General Spinola tried to install himself as the saviour of Portugal but his action had the unintended effect of lighting the fuse on decades of resentment;  his regime was swept away by mass demonstrations and the army fragmented in what became known as the Carnation Revolution. In the midst of this chaos in Portugal, the MPLA under Agostinho Neto seized their chance and declared independence in Angola. However this success was short lived as the new independent Angola was immediately beset by problems; as well as a legacy of 300 years of colonial rule which had kept the economy and society deliberately underdeveloped, Apartheid South Africa invaded and there was a civil war  between the MPLA and a rival group UNITA (aided by the US and South Africa) which lasted for decades and caused the death of millions through conflict, disease and starvation.

Known primarily as a filmmaker, Robert Kramer was a product of 1960s anti-Vietnam War radicalism in the US who, unlike many of his contemporaries that drifted back into the fold come the 70s, continued to explore anti-capitalist themes throughout his career.  His earliest and most influential work is the film Ice (1969), an early mock-umentary about an armed insurrection in the US, was met with criticism from his fellow radical brethren who were disturbed by his questioning of the nature of activism as well his depiction of the fragmentary tendencies and internal tensions that are inherent within all such groups. In the context of Portugal and Angola, his 1977 film, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, about the aftermath of the 1974 Carnation Revolution can be directly linked with this publication.  Whereas Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal attempts to explore the themes of the harnessing of mass-political power and the residual influence of business/financial/military elites who attempt to reassert their influence in a post-revolutionary society, With Freedom in their Eyes is a straightforward record of the emergence of a newly independent Angola. (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal can be found on Youtube.)

With Freedom in the Eyes is a small book of black and white images, mostly credited to Kramer, accompanied by a text written by Laurie Gitlin. Published in 1976 by the People’s Press in California, this book seeks to document and explain the recent war against the Portuguese. Kramer’s black and white photographs within the book fall into two categories; images of the MPLA guerrillas bristling with crude weaponry and portrayals of newly-free Angolan society getting back to work now that Portuguese have gone. Of the actual fighting itself, we see nothing and in fairness, Kramer was not a photojournalist so he wasn’t going to produce dramatic action photos. Through his images Kramer attempts to portray a society coming to terms with the new found situation in which it finds itself; the presence of armed men, even though they are presented as representatives of the people, serve to disrupt the idealised portrayal of a disciplined and unified society. Here we have a desperately poor people, impoverished materially and culturally for centuries by the Portuguese, trying to keep going. The images are pure documentary record and for the most part the presentation is kept simple. (A half-hearted attempt at graphic design is made with the presence of some black-printed pages accompanied by quotes from Angolan rebel leaders and an round image of a crowd with crosshairs over it – but that’s it.)

Gitlin’s text is simplistic, full of Marxist cliché about the struggle against imperialism and optimistic assertions about the future of an independent socialist Angola which were not to come to pass. Unlike Kramer’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, this book is a very straightforward narrative of the triumph of the rebel struggle for independence; it has none of the complexity or nuances that appear in the movie (in which some of Kramer’s Angolan pictures appear) that attempts to explore the inevitable tensions and conflict that occur in a vacuum once political power is up for grabs. Kramer’s subjectivity in the movie, in which he explicitly asserts that what he is showing are fragmentary snapshots and scenes from an ongoing process, is not present in the book. Instead we have an over- simplified and over-optimistic narrative about the emergence of a free Angola.

Perhaps Kramer the filmmaker was more concerned with the movie in production and let the book slide, or were the photographs merely a sweetener used in order to get access in Angola? He obviously had the talent and the skill to produce complex and layered films but this book just doesn’t compare at all.  Whatever the reason, Kramer obviously relinquished control over his photographs which were then used to illustrate a rather mediocre book. It’s a real shame to imagine what kind of a book he could have made if the images had been presented thoughtfully and the text had been more incisive.

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