Review: A Story from Africa (2019)

Film still from Billy Woodberry’s short documentary ‘A Story from Africa’. Courtesy of Pravo Ljudski Film Festival

History material taught in schools usually consists of large-scale events such as long wars and great battles, the crowning of kings and queens, revolutions, great discoveries and conquests. Small-scale events, those that do not involve the destiny of millions of people but mere hundreds, are mentioned as footnotes at best. The advantages of those “small” pieces of history are that they can be easily aligned with and put into a framework of large-scale ones, so that a careful researcher could pinpoint the roles and unearth the motivations for the actions of the protagonists of those events.

If not in schools, “small histories” can be found in museums, and Billy Woodberry’s short documentary A Story from Africa resembles a visit to one, local or maybe regional, which is actually a good thing.

The film premiered at the last year’s edition of Berlinale’s Forum Expanded section, before hitting other festivals like Doclisboa. We caught it at Pravo Ljudski Film Festival that happens online this year.

A Story from Africa is a vignette, a footnote from the early 20th century Angola. It is set around the 1907 Portuguese Pacification Campaign in the South Angola taken against the Cuamato tribe. Three years earlier, the Portuguese were defeated, out of 500 of their expeditionary soldiers, less than 200 came back alive. But, as Woodberry methodically reveals in the first sequence by showing layer by layer of a photo whose content looks like something from the slavery era, this is not a simple story of a massacre that white people committed against the defenceless natives. The top layer of the photo reveals that the armed men were as black as their captives. As the story develops, it becomes clearer that it was more of the “divide and conquer” kind of tactics, with a tribal nobleman who wanted to become a king and with the fact that the Auxiliary Forces that undertook the campaign were composed of Boers and Indigenous volunteers and the Europeans alike.

Woodberry did not have a variety of filmable material at his disposal. On the contrary, we can only see the still photos, taken by Velloso de Castro, some of them damaged or otherwise marked. What Woodberry does with some of those photos is a small wonder. His slow zooms, in and out, as well as the glides over the surface of the photos are a marvel to look at, especially when accompanied António de Sousa Dias’ well-calibrated sound design and music that amplifies the sense of dread and tension. The audio-visual material is accompanied by the textual info-cards, some of them personal, others purely factual, while some also express Woodberry’s literal and dramaturgical talent.

The whole thing really resembles a visit to a museum, but the historical lesson from A Story from Africa is going to stick with you.

Courtesy of Pravo Ljudski film festival

Original title: Uma Historia de África
Year: 2019
Runtime: 32’ 28’’
Country: Portugal
Language: No dialogue
Directed by: Billy Woodberry
Editing by: Luís Nunes
Music by: António de Sousa Dias
Sound design by: António de Sousa Dias
Sound by: Mário Dias
Research by: Teresa Andrade
Produced by: Rui Alexandre Santos, Billy Woodberry
Production company: Divina Comédia