The first time I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), the Soviet Union never entered the frame. This was several grades before we’d all be stuck covering the book three years in a row, with each allusion calcified and mapped out in columns, handed out as warm photocopies, pritted into Croxley notebooks, and highlighted enough times to smudge and erode the printed words.
I’ve been thinking about Animal Farm more than usual. Less so about my initial oversight of the entire subtext, or the repetitive disassembly of its narrative in class, but rather its relation to the mostly conservative, all white teaching staff at my high school: the (optimistic) possibility that it may have provided a safely-removed framework for my teachers to reassess their own troubled relation to the Soviet Union and communism. Stuck in rooi gevaar preparedness for half their lives, many were conscripted to fight for the SADF in the Angolan Border War – two decades after the final scene in the book they now find themselves teaching. One teacher even seemed to advocate Trotskyism when he bemoaned the exile of Snowball. Sometimes traumatic histories are easier to work through when they’re the subtext to a story about talking animals. And sometimes talking animals provide more nuanced and empathetic entry points than historical accounts do.
In Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Havemos de Voltar (We Shall Return) (2017), in which a historical artifact becomes sentient and refuses to be an object in the service of history, the mechanics of the colonial and post-independence identity become indistinguishable. The 17 minute video also acts as a reaffirmation of fiction’s ability to grapple, solely through allusion and oddity, with the many tangled and loose ends of political movements, their respective statecraft and national identities, and the bardic institutions left in their wake.
The film opens with a synoptic history of Luanda as illustrated on the blue tiles of the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel (a literal colonial fortress), capturing both the colonial “manifest destiny” – the arrival and subsequent spread of Portuguese colonies and the Christian Mission, and the Edenic framing of wildlife – solitary animals against an untouched backdrop of flora. All undercut by the narrator’s line “The history represented here was sequestered/ by the fraudulent imagination of a foreign gaze”.
The narrator, Amélia Capomba, is a giant sable antelope (an Angolan national symbol) housed in the Archive Centre. Having recently regained consciousness Amélia finds herself trapped in a stuffed body, subservient to the broader museological schema. She intends on pushing the embalming fluid from her veins, escaping from the Archive Centre and returning to her past. In many ways, Amélia’s desire to return can be framed in relation to the ideals of the Angolan Liberation Struggle. The title of Henda’s video is taken from Agostinho Neto’s 1960 poem of the same name, in which he calls for a collective repatriation and a communal return to (and investment in) the material resources and cultural traditions of Angola.
Neto, then leader of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), would eventually go on to be the 1st President of Angola, declaring their independence from Portugal in 1975. Furthermore, he oversaw both a tenuous coalition between the three major nationalist liberation movements (MPLA, UNITA, and the FNLA) left in the power vacuum of a sudden colonial evacuation, and the unfolding of a prolonged civil war – largely stoked by the country’s use as a proxy for the larger cold war powers.
The post-colonial identity, prototyped in Neto’s poem and later funded into existence by the Soviets, would be structured around the tenets of socialism and cultural expression, and impaired by nostalgia, utopian romanticism, and a longing for a pre-colonial paradise. These sentiments reflect in Amélia’s own development: a growing consciousness and reclamation of agency, intent on liberation and a return to independence.
Amélia further finds herself in a tug of war between Mr. Baltazar, a sympathetic figure, who runs the Archive Centre, and Daniel Jianping, a Chinese trader who has been incessantly trying to acquire Amélia as decoration for his latest investment, a nightclub. Here Amélia, as an object, finds herself in a precarious position (as many objects do) between the role of artifact and trophy, between the museum and the market. While, as a sentient being that despises the archive holding her captive, she also worries about the potential alternative deaccession would bring, asking “What would happen to me in a nightclub/ in this static body/ vulnerable to the most obscene abuse?”
Amélia’s plan is to exit the two structures represented by Baltazar and Jianping entirely, returning to a primordial place untouched by the rampant assimilation processes of history and capital. A noble pursuit, eventually complicated by Amélia’s recollection of the forest in one scene, which reveals not the wilderness of her origin, but the display cases and dioramas in the National Museum of Natural History of Angola.
There’s something strange about realising a stuffed antelope with articulate insights into the problematic nature of historical records and representations may also be a fallible narrator. Amélia is ultimately unable to see past the museological framework she wishes to escape, with her idea of the past being entirely shaped by the museum’s constructed representations of it – trompe-l’œil backdrops and tufts of grass.
This feels like Henda’s strongest swing against postcolonial populism, the sentiments in Neto’s poem, and the liberation struggle post independence: A valid critique does not automatically render a valid solution. In this particular case, problematic colonial structures cannot be rejected or resolved via a return to paradise – itself an idea deeply rooted in the romanticised colonial representations of the pre-colonial. Fallacies beget fallacies.
Even Amélia’s escape is questionable. “Hastily and independently I trace my course from the city to the forest on the map” she claims, while the camera reveals she is being carried by Jianping’s hired men. Amélia is moved from the Archive Centre past Teresa Gama’s 1979 socialist MPLA murals to Jianping’s home. The climax of the film sees Amélia surrounded by the flashing lights of the nightclub, a spectacle of capital in stark contrast to the archive. “I am in the time machine” she announces. And the time machine does work, in some capacity.
The final scene of the film tracks two SADF troops as they crawl through the wilderness (far removed from the dioramas of the museum), taking aim at Amélia. The closing shot, a view of the sky vignetted by branches, recalls Amélia’s earlier line “At night, the endless branches of its trees… / Enclose us in a long and comforting embrace/ Where we sleep in its eternal peace.”
There’s a pessimism in this final scene as a national symbol is shot down from a distance by foreign agents. More so when you consider Amélia’s inevitable return to a servitude she only just managed to escape: her dead, displaced body held in the service of keeping memories alive once more.
Henda’s film frames the fiction of time-travel not as a means to change the course of history, but as a futile attempt to escape it entirely. A sudden liberation promises a return to independence, yet is ultimately subverted by outside forces. The ceaseless desire to go backwards structurally reinforces a deeper cyclical violence.