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Maria João Ganga directs Hollow City (2002), a narrative feature set in Luanda during the Angolan civil war in 1991. Originally titled Na Cidade Vazia, (translated as In the Empty City), this film portrays the effects of a civil war on its people through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. KIZJ (3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin
Wounded soldiers and tired civilians sit huddled together inside an aircraft. As the plane lands in Luanda, a group of local soldiers hoist a coffin down, and a “Nun” (Ana Bustorff) leads a group of children onto a nearby bus. As the nun counts the children, she quickly realizes that one of them is missing and runs off the bus to look for him. “N’Dala” (João Roldan) is hiding away with his little ragged bag and handmade toy. Like the many other children, N’Dala was taken away from his war-torn home city of Bié where his parents were killed. Thinking that Luanda’s seaside capital city would be safer, the nun brings them back with her. Yet, the young boy feels a strong attachment to the place he grew up and longs to return to the countryside he calls home.
Luanda is very different from Bié. The new urban setting is foreign to N’Dala, who spends most of his time wandering around the streets, harboring a wishful hope that he will somehow find a way back home. But this city isn’t a kind place—there’s a curfew, there are drugs, and the decay of the surroundings and its people is evident to an observer’s eyes. He spends his first night in a little tent he stumbles across by the waters. Hereon, he befriends a fisherman, makes a new friend, “Zè” (Domingos Fernandes Fonseca), who takes him around, and navigates the crumbling crevices of a withering city.
Hollow City is one of the first pieces of cinema to be produced in Angola since the end of its civil war, which lasted between 1975 and 2002. This extended period of war expunged the country of its cinema culture for obvious reasons. Hollow City not only tells the story of life during the civil war but also gives Angola the hope it needed in cinema culture at the time. Ganga masterfully pulls off creating a civil war film without focusing on bloody and violent scenes. Instead, she introduces the city of Luanda through the eyes of a young boy whose life has been completely changed and molded by the war. The film is a sneak peek into the capital city and its struggles but also shows the cultural scenes and how they aided the survival of its people. It is always most interesting to see the lesser-known cultural moments that an audience may otherwise never hear about:Kizomba dancing, the buying and selling of handcrafted toys to tourists, and drama lessons in schools are each examples of this.
What Ganga does exceptionally well here is in anchoring the story with a child and showing how urban life gradually seeps into his character and drowns out the innocence with which he came to the city. Although there are some technical areas for improvement in the film and it could have been shorter overall, João Roldan carries Hollow City with his sweet and lovable character. His performance seems to be a blend of reality with acting, and the audience is never sure which is leading which. All of this guides the viewer’s feelings into a growing sadness for N’Dala’s current situation and future development; these feelings are not dictated by the story but become an inevitable realization that creeps into the back of our minds.
At the start of the film, I half-expected myself to be sobbing by the end. Yet this film isn’t cliché or elaborately dramatic, which is difficult to achieve given the setup of a young child from the countryside trying to survive on the streets of a busy city. Ganga uses simple scenes to bring her story closer to real life, for instance when the fisherman smiles warmly at the strange boy who appears in his tent, when Zè is washing his Godmother’s clothes and the latter complains to him down the phone, and when one of the characters opens a drink with her teeth. This simplistic nature of the film makes it so that I enjoyed feeling like fly on the wall, observing life in Angola as a visitor. Doesn’t this remind us of exactly why films are so important? They carry the stories far across the boundaries of time and geography, and it gives filmmakers the chance to share a story from one side of the world to another.
Photo Credits: Global Film Initiative (2004, USA)
Q: Does Hollow City pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Unfortunately, no. There is an instance where women talk to each other at a hairdressers, but it is Zè’s Godmother talking about him. There’s also a moment where women are lining up with buckets to collect water, but this is chatter that isn’t translated in the subtitles.