Culture, Europe, Globe, Screen, United Kingdom

Portugal, the forgotten memories of colonialism

French director Ariel de Bigault talks about the illusions of colonialist ideologies, which laundered the brutalities of slave trafficking. She highlights the failures of the left in Portugal and Brazil to recognize the racism inherent in their cultures. And tells a story of a journey that led her from music to culture and politics. The Prisma’ memoirs.    


Boat Pilgrimage

Graham Douglas


During Portugal’s 48 year dictatorship (1926 – 1974), Salazar propagated the ideology of Portuguese colonies as a big family, where the Europeans had to look after the blacks because they didn’t know how to.

A simple ideology supported by The Three ‘F’s: Football, Fado and Fatima.

Ariel de Bigault’s  film “Fantasmas do Imperio” (Ghosts of Empire) sets out to explore the way that, unlike both Britain and France, recent Portuguese cinema has never engaged critically with this history. And she does it in a novel way – by getting film-makers to discuss each-others’ films made during the 20th Century, and to reflect on their lives between generations, since the colonial wars that began in the 1960s.

Debunking the belief that the Portuguese were more benign colonizers than the Spanish in South America, she points out that Brazil is one of the few countries that was totally based on slavery.

Ariel de Bigault

Trafficking: tearing people out of their homelands to force them to work in another continent was invented by the Portuguese.

And, unlike French colonialism, Portugal and Britain were the only states whose actual identity was composed by their colonies, which were more than just economic resources.

After her film was shown at Indie Lisboa, Ariel talked to The Prisma about these things and her odyssey, often drawn by music that took her from Brazil to Angola and Cape Verde.

You said that you are neither a sociologist, historian nor student of colonialism, so why did you want to make this film?

In comparison with France or Britain only recently have there been some Portuguese films that engaged critically with the history of Portuguese relations with their ex-colonies.

In France, there are well-known African and Arab film and TV actors, although very few are women.

At the beginning of the 20th Century the colonial expansion into the interior was accompanied by film-makers. Famous directors worked for the regime, which understood the power of cinema in a country where most people were illiterate. Chaimite (by Jorge Brum do Canto) was one of the films most watched in Portuguese cinema of the 1960s, it was used in schools, and it supported a racist ideology, showing the blacks as the devil, as ugly, stupid but we can live with them.

Margarida Cardoso and OrlandoSérgio

The Portuguese compare themselves favourably to the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors in South America.

The Spanish had slaves, but there was nothing in Brazil that wasn’t built by African slave labour; the agriculture and the cities too. And the Portuguese killed the indigenous people of course, which the Brazilians are still doing. It wasn’t like apartheid in South Africa, it was an ideology that impregnated the whole culture without being explicitly spoken. And it mostly developed after the liberation of the slaves, which was a project of the aristocratic landowners, not the abolitionist movement. Slavery was no longer profitable, no-one would employ them, and they were not allowed to work the land, so thousands died.

This fable that the Portuguese treated the Africans as equals and produced mulatto children, ignores the fact that the rulers were always white. The big banks in Sao Paulo are owned by descendants of 19th Century landowners. The Portuguese monarchy was weak too, so instead of building an infrastructure, everything was left to the pragmatism of business owners. 90% of the slave traffic was controlled by the Portuguese.

Guineans 1932

They realised that some African rulers were willing to capture people, using arms supplied by the Portuguese, and bring them to the coast to sell to them. They didn’t invest in Africa in the way they did in Asia, they just made money from human trafficking.

What brought you to work in Africa after that?

I made contact with African music and musicians in Paris, where it was more accessible, and the music led me to the communities there and in Portugal.

During the war in Angola I went instead to Cabo Verde. I also began making films about the African communities in Portugal, but they were not well received by the Portuguese, especially those in the ‘cultural elite’, and on the left. It was the same in Brazil in the 80s, even the militants among the PT that I talked to didn’t want to know about racism in Brazil, they said it was just a social problem.

After the 1974 revolution, we were all brothers and sisters, as if 500 years of history had just ended! The Portuguese didn’t realise the richness of their relationship with their ex-colonies. Quite different between France and its ex-colonies. Portuguese, Angolans and Cabo-Verdeans dress the same, eat the same food – even turkey at Christmas!, and listen to the same music.

Hugo Vieira Da Silva and Angelo Torres.

The war in Algeria was important but colonialism wasn’t fundamental in the construction of the French State. Brazilian resources sustained the Portuguese monarchy in the 19th Century, and Africa was essential for Salazarism in the 20th, which constructed a myth of the Portuguese Empire.

Only in the UK were their colonies constitutive of the country.

None of the directors in your film addressed contemporary African politics, which became much more corrupt since the socialist revolutionary movements of the 1970s.

Margarida Cardoso does deal with the theme of the abandonment of the ideals of those times, during the 80s and 90s, and the film “Ivone Kane”.  That would be another film…, but Angola and Mozambique were involved in wars, and many people in Angola got rich from the fighting, about 100 families took opportunities. In the 2000s a booming middle class got rich from foreign investments, but they’re not interested in benefitting the people as a whole. If a country doesn’t have a strong pro-active middle class, it won’t develop. In Brazil it exists, but it’s controlled by the elite.

Fernando Matos Silva and AngeloTorres

150,000 Portuguese have gone to Angola since 2000, and done very well out of restaurants and hotels.

One of the most important points in the film was where Fernando Matos Silva talks to Joao Botelho about a film made  in 1961, images that were pure propaganda to get young men to sign up for the war in Angola. It was important to show the question of generations. I wanted to bring about these meetings between film-makers, and in some cases the meetings happened for the first time in my film.

I don’t like documentary, because ‘reality’ is very questionable, I like to invent, to create a vision and a dialogue. I want the spectator to construct their own film. I start from the principle of Cinema du Reel, that the camera changes reality, which I saw when I filmed in the bairros, in Africa and Brazil, the person stages reality. I detest interviews where I arrive with a series of questions that the person has to answer, because sometimes, for example when Botelho talks about things that were very strong for him, he has to speak alone.

JM Costa and AngeloTorres

There is a lot of material on music on your website.

When I began to make films in Brazil, “Eclats noir du samba”, I saw the racial discrimination. Gilberto Gil was not the person he later became, and purely because he was black. I started to be more interested in the music, and because of the importance of African music in France: Manu Dibango, Salif Keita, Mory Kanté.

There is so much in common between music in Lusophone countries. The similarity between the chords means that guitarists from Portugal and Angola could play together after half an hour rehearsing – impossible if between French and Senegalese. The Cavaquinho is the instrument most in common between all these countries, even in Timor.

(December, 2020)

(Photos supplied by Ariel de Bigault)


Share it / Compartir:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *