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Music Proves a Lifeline in 'Escape from Luanda'

By Christiaan Harden

From Phil Grabsky's <em>Escape from Luanda</em>

Following a breakout hit like In Search of Mozart was never going to be an easy task, even if you have been making documentaries for 25 years. But Phil Grabsky's latest feature, Escape from Luanda, a touching portrait of Angola's one and only music school, more than lives up to his reputation.

Having premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival in September 2007, the documentary then opened in the UK with a special screening for members of the Houses of Parliament. Despite the difficulties of getting cinemas to screen another film about music in Africa, Escape from Luanda played to sell-out crowds at London's Barbican in January and has been screening at theaters around the UK since then, with bookings extended through October. In the midst of a humanitarian crisis, there is hope in the form of an under-funded music school in Luanda, war-torn Angola's dangerous capital, where Joana, Domingas and Alfredo hope they'll be thrown a musical lifeline. Their enthusiasm is palpable, even if their chances are slim. Recently honored with a prestigious Royal Television Society (RTS) Award for Best Documentary, Escape from Luanda chronicles a year in their lives as they prepare for the big end-of-year show, poignantly exploring their hopes, dreams and hardships along the way. In a year already bursting with great docs on music in Africa--War/Dance and We Are Together are among the most visible--this thoughtful film deserves attention.

Five years have now passed since Angola's brutal civil war came to a somewhat precarious end, and surprisingly few films have been shot there. Having originally scoured the country for a classical pianist or opera singer, Grabsky stumbled upon the school and was welcomed with open arms. With 84 students to chose from, all with interesting stories to tell, Grabsky felt spoiled for choice and felt that a film could have been made about "almost any of them." It was Alfredo, however, who presented himself first. Despite a disapproving father who ridiculed his career choice, Alfredo was "always there and playing the piano pretty decently. He was also considered the bright hope of the school so quickly became an obvious choice." Aspiring female rock-drummer Joana and Domingas, a mother of five whose husband left her when she enrolled, came along a little later.

Speaking fluent Spanish and French helped the Brighton, England-based Grabsky understand his character's native Portuguese tongue, and positive relationships quickly developed. In the evenings, a translator helped Grabsky keep pace with the story, but when the school's director left unexpectedly, the filmmaker could have lost it altogether. Immediately questioning the crew's presence and what his students would get out of them being there, the new man in charge was reluctant to let the filmmakers continue. Thankfully when the director realised that Grabsky had always intended to give a piano to the school and encourage donations, he was persuaded otherwise.

"In some ways I was happy that the director was questioning more what we were doing, why we were focusing on the characters and what the point of the film was," Grabsky explains. Not only is this turning point a very strong narrative moment in the film, but according to the Grabksy, "It reflects what's going on in Angola." Where the first director thought that, "In post-civil war Angola, it's enough that these students are just turning up, her replacement was focused on raising the standards, connecting with the international market and students passing their exams properly," he continues. The school director was also very aware of the professional perception he wished to create of his school, and he led his students in an authoritative style that they were clearly not used to.

Trying to intertwine three stories and give a real sense of life in Angola proved a tricky and complicated process. After screening the film at a few festivals, Grabsky reworked the narrative and changed the ending, emphasizing the three stories instead of driving the film toward the obvious climax of the end-of-year concert. "I think the film's far stronger as a result," he maintains. The personalities are so compelling and their music so heartfelt, your attention never strays. "Escape from Luanda is something that you can, and really have to, connect with," Grabsky continues. "I'm making a film at the moment about the life of Beethoven. I'm talking to world scholars and they say, ‘It's not something that you can have on in the background; you really have to listen to it.' I feel the same about this film." 

You can't help but listen. The sumptuous soundtrack skillfully combines the classical canon of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, traditional Angolan music and Portuguese hip-hop. Thinking about the music from the beginning of the project, Grabsky recorded all location sound himself, then worked closely with a skilled composer and longtime collaborator. The pair's hard work has certainly paid off, earning Escape from Luanda's sound design a short listing for a BAFTA Television Craft Award. 

"I think that a great error that some filmmakers make is they leave the music until the end," Grabsky notes. "You have to treat music the same way you treat your cinematography, your character development. It's absolutely integral, vital. The use of music in the film is to drive the story and add a real emotional texture to the piece. My view of the situation is made clear by my choice of music. I clearly feel a great deal of empathy and a sadness for these characters, and the music reflects that to some extent."

Grabsky also feels that many documentary makers do their work a disservice by not paying better attention to their soundtracks. "A lot of soundtracks are pretty poor because there's no integrity to them," he observes. "You can't just lop a bit of classical music on and think that it will be alright. You look at those Hollywood films. They know what they're doing and I think that documentaries need to raise their game and really start working on these soundtracks, so that we can have the same impact as big-budget movies."

Grabsky made his first doc at age 21, a self-shot film about the Dalai Lama that sold to Channel 4 in the UK. In an illustrious, award-winning career, the filmmaker has shifted effortlessly across subject matters, directing and producing films for most major broadcasters on subjects ranging from great commanders, global sporting icons, popular art series and even ancient inventions.

"I think the thing that links my films is the desire to explore and celebrate the potential of human beings," Grabsky reflects. "I only realized this recently, actually, but I've always been fascinating by human creativity and human potential."

For his future work, Grabsky is in production on The Boy Mir, his follow-up to the multi-award winning The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The film will follow the star of the first film from the ages 8 to 18, as he journeys into early adulthood in one of the toughest places on earth--war-torn Afghanistan. In Search of Beethoven is also now in full production, with filming having taken place in a dozen countries with world-renowned musicians and leading exponents of classical music.


Christiaan Harden is a documentary filmmaker and writer currently developing broadcast documentaries for Spectrum Films in London, England.