NHA FALA/MY VOICE (2002, Guinea-Bissau, 85 min.), directed by Flora Gomes; screenplay by Flora Gomes and Franck Moisnard; cinematography by Edgar Moura; music by Manu Dibango; edited by Dominique Pâris; with Fatou N’Diaye (Vita), Jean-Christophe Dollé (Pierre); Ângelo Torres (Yano), Bia Gomes (Vita’s Mother), Jorge Quintino Biague (Mito the Madman), Carlos Imbombo (Caminho), François Hadji-Lazaro (Bjorn), Denièle Evenou (Pierre’s Mother), Bonnafet Tarbouriech (Pierre’s Father).  In Portuguese/Crioulo and French with English subtitles.

Whenever Africa is spoken about or depicted, it is always in terms of the aid we receive, war, people dying of starvation, sick people . . . These things do of course exist in Africa: Africans kill other Africans, and nobody knows why we go to war, yet it still goes on.  But there is another side to Africa, and that is what I wanted to show.  It is a side you never see on your television screens in the West.  That is why I made this film.

I wanted people to see our Africa, the Africa of my dreams, the Africa that I love and that I would like my children to know one day.  It is a happy Africa, where people dance, where people can speak freely.  It is my take on the future for a new generation.—Flora Gomes

            In 1998 the country of Guinea-Bissau found itself in the grips of a civil war that would last a year and would do unspeakable damage to its people and to its infrastructure.  Through it all, the great director Flora Gomes dreamed of his next film, one that he had been working on before the fighting erupted, before he was forced to take refuge.  It would not be the story of revolutionary struggle and its aftermath, as in Mortu Nega (1988), nor would it be the mournful tale of shattered illusions, as in The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1992).  No, this film would be, of all things, a musical comedy . . .

            It was a genre that Gomes had long wanted to try out.  For him, one of Africa’s great strengths is its music, music’s ability to capture and intensify the rhythm of life.  Another strength is the African’s power to dream, i.e., to mythologize, and see the deeper patterns that underlie the everyday.  Too often, celluloid representations of Africa present it as a land of suffering and deprivation, a place that needs aid and counsel.  Yet this misses so much of the African experience.  Gomes wanted to make a film where whimsy, imagination, humor, and music would reign supreme—yet would still touch on notions needing to be considered.  It would take four years of planning, dreaming, cajoling, and work, but eventually Nha Fala was made.

            The film opens with a dedication to Amilcar Cabral, “Father of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, assassinated in 1973.”  This seems like an odd way to open a musical comedy, but it is very much in keeping with Gomes’ goals for this project.  For him, the figure of Cabral (the agronomist who led the 20-year struggle to free Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde from Portuguese rule, one of the true heroes of Africa) embodies the dream of independence and social justice, a dream which he feels has too often sadly been betrayed, but which must constantly be renewed.  Nha Fala will also end with a reference to Cabral.

            The film itself opens on a whimsical note: a solemn procession of children make their way from the harbor to the town, bearing what appears to be a corpse--a corpse that turns out to be that of a dead parrot--while mournful, lovely music plays on the soundtrack.  The tone shifts abruptly as we are introduced to Yano, a young wheeler-dealer in a red sports car, cell phone glued to his ear, eyes glued to the passing girls.  He is followed around town by his hapless employees in their dilapidated truck, transporting an unusual item.  Yano, the town’s new “Deputy Mayor” has commissioned a bust of Cabral for the town, as a way to enhance his stature and impress the girls.

            To impress, in particular, the film’s lovely heroine, Vita.  In the words of Yano’s workers, she is “like ripe fruit in the sun . . . proof that God exists!”  Though Yano is all over her, she has no time for him.  They seem to have once been in a relationship, but that was before he decided to enter the rat race of unscrupulous deal-making and fast money.  Moreover, she is about to leave for five years of study in Paris.  She marches away from him and enters a church, where the choir is about to choose a new director.  Vita is asked to decide who the new director should be.  Each candidate presents his or her credentials to Vita--and suddenly, improbably, we are in a musical.  

            As is typical in musicals, wherever the heroine goes, she attracts a crowd.  It’s not just her beauty, there’s something about her.  People are always looking to her to make decisions—who should be the new choir director, where should the bust of Cabral be placed (Yano has lost interest in it, and it’s up to one of his workers and a crazy guy to find a home for it).  She’s given advice, she’s cajoled, she’s entreated, she’s proposed to, it’s all too much; she’s got to get away!  Yes, she’s looked up to, and embraced by everyone, but somehow she remains somewhat aloof.  We come to realize what the problem is (and in a musical, it’s a real problem!): during these musical numbers, she never sings.  We soon learn why. The women in her family carry a peculiar legacy: a prohibition against singing, with dire consequences—the curse of death—if the prohibition is violated. 

            Despite all the color and the singing, death is, in fact, always in the background in this early part of the film.  The dead parrot, the dead hero (Cabral), Vita’s grandmother’s announcement that she will be dead by the time Vita returns, her mentioning her dead son, Vita’s mother’s admonition against singing, the dead neighbor’s wake; in fact, Vita joins the neighbor’s funeral procession as she leaves the town en route to Paris.  In a sense, Vita is fleeing the weight of death as she moves to Paris (ultimately, of course, she must and will return to confront it).

And then we are in Paris, where people sing and dance too, but in French.  We learn (through song) of the love-at-first-sight between Vita and Pierre, a young French musician.  We see their love, and hear Vita as she inevitably responds to this new-found emotion with a lovely song, as natural as breathing.  But then what?  How will she reconcile this honest expression with the strictures of her tradition?  Can she escape death?  Can she escape estrangement from her family?  Can she embrace the possibility of death in order to have life?  Can she find—through the power of music—her voice? 

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            Because of the destruction and continued instability in his own country, Gomes and his producer decided to film in Cape Verde, the island nation and former Portuguese colony with which Guinea-Bissau had been briefly joined between independence in 1974 and 1980. (As in Guinea-Bissau, most Cape Verdeans speak Portuguese Creole.)  Most of the crew and principal actors were brought in from Guinea-Bissau, including Bia Gomes, who plays the mother (she has been in all of Flora Gomes’ films).  Fatou N’Diaye, who plays Vita, is actually French (from a Senegalese family).  Star of the hit French television series “Fatou, The Girl From Mali,” the Francophone actress was able to speak Creole within two months. 

The cinematography, set design, and costumes combine to create an atmosphere of dynamic vibrancy that was so important to the life-affirming tone of the film.  So does the music, composed by the great French-Cameroonian jazz musician, Manu Dibongo.  Gomes chose a choreography style that was deliberately non-Western: he eschewed the tightly synchronized production numbers that one expects from Western dance musicals, preferring a looser, more relaxed style with room for individual variation, more in keeping with traditional African dance.  The lyrics to the songs are a mixture of social commentary (references to unemployment, a poor postal system, moral precepts), and crazy, goofy nonsense.  Indeed, the world of this film is very much a mixed, hybrid one: where a person can be both an Animist and a Catholic, alive and dead, speaking truth and speaking nonsense, criticizing and dreaming.  Nha Fala itself is a critique of greed and self-interest, a call for women’s empowerment and the need to break with a tradition that is overbearingly constricting; but it is also a gift to the senses and pure delight.

* * *

Born in Cadique, Guinea-Bissau, in 1949, Flora (Florentino) Gomes entered the Arts Institute (ICAIC) in Cuba in 1972, where he studied filmmaking under the direction of Santiago Alvarez.  He subsequently studied at the Senegal Film Institute and was trained in documentary filmmaking by the French director Chris Marker.  He co-directed two films, La Reconstitution (with Sergio Pina) and Anos no Oça Luta ((with Sana Na N’Hada).  Mortu Nega was his first feature, and was selected for the Venice Film Festival.  The Blue Eyes of Yonta showed at Cannes in 1992.  Gomes’ next film, Po di Sangui/Tree of Blood (1995) also competed at Cannes and was widely acclaimed.  Because of some last-minute problems with the sound mixing, Nha Fala could not open at Cannes, to which it had been invited.  Instead, it opened at the Venice Film Festival, and went on to great popularity in France and elsewhere. 

Flora Gomes has been knighted by the French government with the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and he has received many other awards during his rich career.  Gomes has stated that he will not stop making films until he has made a film about Amilcar Cabral.

                                                                                    --Notes by Michael Dembrow