Credit: Suneil Sanzgiri
by Joshua Peinado Featured Film

Two Refusals (Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken?) — Suneil Sanzgiri

February 26, 2024

The staff of In Review Online have come to the collective decision to abide by the international call from Strike Germany. We will be withholding coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival on the grounds that its institutional backing from the German government is marred by the latter’s censorship and marginalization of activist voices. Germany’s military and financial support of Israel, alongside the repression of those speaking up against Israel’s genocidal actions against the Palestinian people of Gaza and its assault and expropriation of those within the Occupied West Bank, should not be ignored or condoned. We wish to send our commitment of solidarity to all filmmakers and cultural workers who have joined this strike; business as usual is unacceptable. As over 100 Palestinians are killed each day in Gaza, we find the festival’s attempt to mitigate these criticisms with the gesture of The TinyHouse Project to be a condescension toward active and ongoing genocide. The festival’s poor attempt at good faith gives little actual space to the voices who push against empire, and offers only a tiny house, filled with hot air, off to the side, where no one else can see or hear you. While we will not be covering the Berlin Film Festival, that will not be the end of our participation in the strike. Instead, as a form of counter-programming, we will be reviewing selected works within the Palestinian Film Archive and publishing original writings related to these films. We declare solidarity with all participating in this strike, and solidarity with those participating in protests across the festival grounds.

Suneil Sanzgiri’s cinema is one defined by distance and formal restrictions: in his first film, At Home But Not At Home, Sanzgiri composes an email (on screen) commissioning a filmmaker to assist him in shooting locations in Goa, the home of his father, a place which Sanzgiri has never been. In an interview with Film Comment’s Devika Girish, Sanzgiri spoke to this geographically imposed limitation: “I didn’t have any images to start with… a lot [of that film] is appropriated footage.” The opening shot of At Home But Not At Home deals with these restrictions in an aptly poetic manner, harnessing “broken” images from Google Earth wherein the bodies of several young men collapse in on each other as the camera’s angle fails to delineate where one body ends and the next begins.

Interconnection is an obvious theme in all Sanzgiri’s films, which link the anticolonial struggles of peoples from India to Africa.. More obvious is the aesthetic interconnection Sanzgiri uses, mixing analog Super 16 film and digital, often computer-generated images, to great effect. In Golden Jubilee, the filmmaker reconstructs an ancestral home from Goa in dream sequences. The 3D modeling has an eerie effect in its limitations — every hallway feels like a half-sketched memory, and its human characters are blurred, with skin and clothes that ripple like water. These images feel appropriate in their dreaminess, and even more suited to these lost memories of a place Sanzgiri longs for but cannot be; a place he has never been.

In his latest work, Two Refusals (Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken?), Sanzgiri has entered into a new aesthetic realm. While he has retained the same weave of hyper-digital and analogue, his CG images have a new sheen, his 16 mm work has new depth, and the interplay between these mediums is now complimented by a new installation approach utilizing two screens. Still, there are hallmarks from his past work. Sanzgiri appropriates images and words from favorite films such as Sambizanga and Saat Hindustani. Sanzgiri has commissioned work from India and now from Portugal, though this time he doesn’t make note of his lack of access to these places.

The film’s narrative explores the lives of two revolutionaries, Sharada Sawaikar from Goa and Sita Valles from Angola. Sawaikar was tortured and imprisoned by the Portuguese, who retained control of Goa at that time, for alleged involvement in the assassination of a pro-Portuguese Goan. (She was released from jail due to a bureaucratic blunder after two years). Valles was a Goan born abroad, one whose trajectory was marked by her turn to Marxism at an early age. After helping to wrest control of Angola from the Portuguese, Valles was branded a dissident by the Marxist government of president Agostinho Neto, who favored non-alignment, for a suspected Soviet attachment. Accused of being a KGB spy, she was killed alongside other suspected rebels. Strangely enough, assisting the Angolans in this effort were the Cubans, who found themselves at odds with the Soviet Union during these events. Valles’ brother, Edgar, narrates this story, and as he tells it, Valles was disappeared. Reportedly, Valles was executed at the age of 25, tortured, shot in every limb, and tossed in a ditch for a final, fatal shot before her corpse’s resting place was flattened by a tractor so that she could not be found.

Two Refusals is an uncompromising piece which interrogates the context from which anticolonialism emerges, and the conditions necessary for post-colonial governments to survive. Both Sawaikar and Valles illustrate a refusal to bend to authority. The film nears its close with these words: “Liberation is a process, inevitable and unavoidable, continuous, persistent, there are signs for those willing to listen.” Sanzgiri acknowledges the contradictions at play in Valles’ story, one of a Marxist turned on by the supposedly Marxist government she helped establish. True liberation, as dissidents of President Neto would have argued, did not immediately occur upon the exchange of power from the colonial government to the post-colonial state. Neto’s beliefs in non-alignment, evolutionary socialism, and multiracialism were taken as slights against a population of Marxists eager to see a more radical change in the way their society functioned, a truer step towards equality for all. But still, liberation is a process. It unfolds gradually, manifesting among the proletariat and making itself known to structures of power as an unstoppable force to conquer capital’s “immovable object.” This is, after all, a basis of Karl Marx’s theory of the movement of history. Marx wrote in Private Property and Communism: “The entire movement of history, as simply communism’s actual act of genesis — the birth act of its empirical existence — is, therefore, for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming.”

Though not bearing any obvious restrictions on its surface, Sanzgiri did encounter one final limitation with this film — his conscience. Two Refusals was set to play in Berlinale in the experimental category, but one month before the festival, Sanzgiri pulled his film. In a statement posted to Instagram, the director wrote:

“I am withdrawing my work from the Berlinale. Statements like these feel utterly useless in the face of over 100 days of live-streamed genocide against the Palestinian people, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. Yet the state repression in Germany of Palestinian voices and critics of the Zionist occupation, the genocide, the mass starvation, and the apartheid that has taken the lives of over 23,000 people and displaced 1.7 million, must not go unchallenged. It must be met with our principled and justified action. We as artists must stand up to structures of silence, suppression, censorship, and ‘artwashing’ of a genocide… My work, which explores histories of anti-colonial solidarity networks between India and Africa and possibilities of world-building amongst centuries of colonial plunder, makes very clear the ongoing relevance of resistance to occupation.”

There is a clear line from the resistance Sanzgiri has conjured in his film to the resistance of the Palestinian people to the occupation of their land by the Zionist colonial entity of Israel. In the case of Goa, after 451 years of occupation, a two-day battle determined their freedom from colonial rule. In Angola, the war against the Portuguese took thirteen years. In Palestine, the fight against Israel has raged for over 75 years, the most recent months bearing the signs of an empire in decay, lashing out and flailing wildly. The battle against a colonial power is never peaceful, because colonialism is, itself, a bloody act. Countless martyrs are made of the everyday citizens of these occupied countries, and yet the world seemingly only watches when the colonist bleeds the consequences of its occupation. Fred Moten, American cultural theorist and poet, said it this way: “Israel is a dam against the motion of history.” Anticolonialism is an unstoppable tide. Slowly, and ever-more-rapidly, cracks form. Whether in Goa, Angola, or Palestine, the revolutionary spirit of anti-colonialism rises as a part of the process of liberation — inevitable and unavoidable, continuous, persistent. There are signs for those willing to listen.