Escape from Luanda (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

Escape from Luanda

“A war-ravaged past… a new hope for the future.”

Filmed and directed by Phil Grabsky

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: June 2008
Duration: 72 minutes [documentary]
23 minutes [extra feature]



“Art is life”, says Joana, a 23-year-old student of percussion at The National Music School in Luanda, capital of Angola. Not an uncommon sentiment you might think, but this is a country which, having gained independence in 1975 after nearly 500 years of Portuguese rule, promptly entered a destructive 27-year civil war. Peace was secured in 2002, but the scars of the conflict remain. Joana lost a brother on the front line, and the average salary is $1 per day – despite Angola’s booming export trade in oil and diamonds.

Phil Grabsky’s documentary “Escape from Luanda” covers a year in the life of three students at the music school. In addition to Joana, there is 21-year-old Alfredo, who is studying the piano, and Domingas, a 42-year-old mother of five sons. Life is difficult for the students. Many eat only one meal a day. Domingas occasionally has no money and has to walk three hours to get to school. Yet, as the title of the documentary suggests, there is more than just a love of music behind the students’ dedication. Joana, for example, wants to be an “international female drummer”, while Alfredo expresses a wish to be an “international pianist”.

Aside from financial hardships, other factors make the students’ lives difficult. Joana’s percussion teacher leaves the school partway through her studies, and the students are shown practising on a noticeably out-of-tune piano. A new director of the school starts partway through the year and introduces a regime of “silence, discipline and work”. The students are unhappy about this and look bored when listening to an opera during a class.

December brings end-of-year exams and a student concert. Attended by government ministers and people from the business community, the concert appears to be more useful for students looking for work than does the certificate issued by the school.

The film eschews the use of a narrator, instead allowing the students to tell their own story (in Portuguese with English subtitles). The result provides a valuable insight into an infrequently visited country, although it is difficult to imagine that many viewers would want to watch the documentary more than once. It seems a pity that the student musicians in the film were not given the opportunity to showcase more than a few snippets of their music-making skills.

In addition to the main feature, the DVD includes a fluent 23-minute monologue by Grabksy, explaining the background to the project and the complexities of filming in Angola.

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