MORTU NEGA/DEATH DENIED (1988, Guinea-Bissau, 92 min.), directed by Flora Gomes; screenplay by Flora Gomes and Manuel Rambault Barcellos; produced by Cecília Fonseca; cinematography by Dominique Gentil; edited by Christiane Lack; with Bia Gomes (Diminga), Tunu Eugenio Almada (Sako), Mamadu Uri Baldé (Sanabayo), M'Male Nhassé (Lebeth), Sinho Pedro Da Silva (Estin), Homna Naleté (Mandembo), Caio Leucadio Almeida (Onkono), Irene Lope (Brinsam), Flora Gomes (Sector Chief). In Portuguese/Criolo with English subtitles.
I too bear the memories of the struggle
I too feel the suffering of all mothers
I too bear the marks of suffering
I too will never speak of it
For I too, I too live in hope
Born in Guinea-Bissau, Flora Gomes entered the Arts Institute in Cuba in 1972, where he studied filmmaking under the direction of Santiago Alvarez. He subsequently studied at the Senegal Film Institute. 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. Because of the vagaries of distribution, we were able to show Yonta in 1996, before Mortu Nega became available to us. Gomes' most recent film, Po di Sangui/Tree of Blood (1995) also competed at Cannes and has been widely acclaimed. He has been working on Nha Fala (My Voice), a musical comedy, a genre that he has always loved and long wanted to try out. Sadly, his work was interrupted by last year's very destructive civil war, which forced Flora Gomes to flee Guinea-Bissau and take refuge in neighboring Senegal.
According to Guinean journalist Teresa Ribeiro, who works for the Portuguese language Voice of America, Mortu Nega cost around $500,000 to make, and was entirely funded by the Guinea-Bissau government, which is quite remarkable, considering that Guinea-Bissau is considered one of the world's very poorest. 'People were receptive to the film because the story is set in the war of independence,' says Cecília Fonseca, who produced the film. The generation that took part in the war, who still occupied the positions of power, gave their full support to the film. Ribeiro writes that "because the subject was so close to the hearts of the Guinean nation, people did everything they could to help the production.
Mortu Nega parallels in many ways the story of Faraw, Mother of the Dunes, the film from Mali that we saw last week. As was the case in that film, we see a strong woman who must look insider herself for the strength to be a support for her ailing husband, and who reflects the nation's core, traditional values. Another parallel is that the actress who plays the lead, Bia Gomes, also won the Best Actress award at FESPACO, the Panafrican Film Festival. Viewers will indeed be struck by Bia Gomes' expressive face and lovely voice, the wonderful strength of her walk, and her powerful presence in the final ritual Appeal to the Dead, are As usual with Flora Gomes, the majority of actors in the film are amateurs. He himself appears in this film, playing the Sector Chief, whom we see briefly with his bicycle, speaking with his former comrade Sako.
The distributor of the film, California Newsreel, has provided particularly good catalogue notes on the film (website http://www.newsreel.org/films/mortu.htm), so we we are providing them intact:
California Newsreel is releasing Flora Gomes' now classic, Mortu Nega, to commemorate three starkly dissimilar events. 1998 marks both the 25th anniversary of the independence of Guinea-Bissau and the assassination of its leader Amilcar Cabral but also the year that country virtually annihilated itself in a brutal civil war. Produced in 1988 near the midpoint of these dates, Mortu Nega, as its title implies, is a unique kind of elegy - not to the victims of the liberation struggle but to its survivors. Like the Zimbabwean film Flame (1996) and Gomes' own even more disillusioned second feature Udju Azul di Yonta (1991), it is a bittersweet eulogy to those veterans who gave so much yet too often benefited so little from the wars. The film poses a question facing much of post-colonial Africa at the start of the 21st century: with the goal of independence achieved, what can serve as an equally unifying and compelling vision for constructing a just society? Or as Chris Marker observed in his celebrated 1980 documentary Sans Soleil , contemplating the decay of this same revolution: "What every revolutionary thinks the morning after victory: now the real problems begin."
Mortu Nega covers the period from January 1973 during the closing months of the war against the Portuguese to the consolidation of an independent Guinea-Bissau in 1974 and 1975. This tiny West African nation's valiant struggle and eventual triumph over 500 years of Portuguese domination attracted international support and heralded the final wave of anti-colonial struggles culminating in the defeat of apartheid in 1994. But the film also offers glimpses of the troubles ahead. The revolution's charismatic leader, the Cape Verdean agronomist, Amílcar Cabral, was assassinated on the eve of victory in January 1973 by Portuguese inspired mainland nationalists resentful of Cape Verdean dominance in the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independéncia de Guinea e Cabo Verde). The fragile union between Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde islands was finally dissolved as the result of a bloodless military coup in 1980 led by the old guerrilla commander and present president, João Bernardo Vieira. When the post-revolutionary generation in the military and the population as a whole began to oppose Vieira's increasingly kleptocratic regime, he called in troops from Senegal and Guinea (Conakry) resulting in the carnage of June, 1998.
Mortu Nega can be divided into three "movements" each with a style reflecting a distinct stage in the revolutionary process. The film begins mysteriously someplace in the jungle on the supply road from Conakry to the front. A convoy weaves its way through tall grasses camouflaging itself like Mao's "fish in the sea." Gomes' portrayal of guerrilla war is one of the most accurate and eloquent on film, capturing its tedium, terror and heroism, its rhythm of fragile silences broken by helicopter fire from above or exploding landmines from below. In this war of attrition with the Portuguese, the exhausted militants press forward along a path which seems unclear, even circuitous, directed only by their vision of a free Guinea-Bissau. Throughout this section, the emphasis is on the group over the individual. Only after five minutes, does a heroine, Diminga, emerge and the story of her unflagging loyalty to her husband, Sako, a wounded guerrilla commander, only underlines the sense of solidarity developed among the warriors.
After demobilization, the veterans return to a world with very different values, the static world of village life, where people are divided by property and self-interest, where commerce takes the place of camaraderie. Ironically, it seems that now that the revolution has reached its destination it has lost its sense of direction. For example, when soldiers distribute free rice it immediately passes into corrosive black-market profiteering. A drought descends on the country, perhaps symbolizing the drying up of revolutionary fervor. Sako's old war wound turns gangrenous, just as the body politic has become diseased. He ruefully observes that during the war his feet carried him across the country but in peace he can't make his way across his yard. Gomes dramatizes the two paths the revolution can take when Sako is taken to Bissau for treatment and asks Diminga to seek the help of two old comrades. One, a pipe-smoking bureaucrat, fears he's being asked for money and pretends not to recognize Sako's name; the other unhesitatingly puts himself, his car and driver at his old comrade's disposal. A young literacy teacher frames the problem during a lesson on the word "luta" or struggle. "What is struggle," he asks? A woman responds that struggle for her is feeding her child each day. Sako answers that struggle for him was fighting the Portuguese. The teacher concludes: "For you the struggle was yesterday, for her the struggle is today. A luta continua - the struggle continues."
In the third movement, the film abandons the world of history for that of myth; the long march of war and the halting steps of social development are transformed into dance. Diminga has a prophetic dream which is interpreted to mean that the drought can only be lifted through the "beckoning of the ancestors." Here Gomes, as the PAIGC itself frequently did, adapts to political purposes a traditional religious ritual, the invocation of Djon Cago (Diancongo), a deity of the Balanta people, Guinea-Bissau's largest ethnic group which inhabits the rice growing region south of the Geba estuary. Diminga, appeals to the dead on behalf of "the generation of sorrows...of those whom death refused," to reveal who is stirring up ethnic strife, committing crimes in the name of the revolution, desiring "the death of the baobab," that is, the revolution. The film is too discrete to name names or perhaps this is a ritual exorcism of all the people of Guinea-Bissau; in any case, by 1988 everyone knew who was responsible. The ritual succeeds in breaking the drought and in the final shot the children, the hope of the future, dance in a downpour.
Gomes' next film, Udju Azul di Yonta, ends with a similar scene; the by-now thoroughly disillusioned and enervated revolutionary generation dream, hung-over beside a swimming pool, while the children of Bissau dance off chasing their own dreams. By ending both films with a shift from narrative to symbol, Gomes seems to be saying that for the nation to rediscover a sense of direction requires a rupture with the corrupt political discourse of the present and a return to the primordial values unifying the people. Even if the Diancongo rite is not a literal deus ex machina but simply an invocation of some sort of Jungian "collective unconscious;" Gomes is relying here on a mythopoeic rather than a political solution. It is no doubt unfair to suggest that atavistic values do not seem to have saved the country from the disasters of the past 25 years. Cabral himself probably imagined some sort of socialist development path analogous to the collective institutions he improvised in the liberated zones. But he also foresaw the dangers of "mountaintopism," a self-interested, centralized bureaucracy ignoring the daily needs of grassroot producers. In any case, by 1988 socialism had become discredited and nothing but neo-liberal structural adjustment policies had taken its place. Thus the question which Gomes raises and necessarily can answer only symbolically, continues to face Africans, indeed anyone, looking for a path towards a more just society. A luta does indeed continua.
(The most thorough introduction to this period of Guinea-Bissau's history is Warriors at Work, by Mustafah Dhada, University Press of Colorado, 1993.)
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