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93 minutes, 1988, Guinea Bissau Director: Flora Gomes in Criolo with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
California Newsreel has released Flora Gomes' now classic, Mortu Nega, to commemorate three starkly dissimilar events. 1998 marked both the 25th anniversary of the independence of Guinea-Bissau and the assasination of its leader Amilcar Cabral but it was 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 so much to the victims of the liberation struggle as to its survivors. Like the Zimbabwean film Flame (1996) and Gomes' own more disillusioned second feature Udju Azul di Yonta (1991), it is a bittersweet eulogy to those veterans who gave so much yet often benefited so little from the struggle. The film poses a question facing much of Africa at the start of the 21st century: with the goal of independence achieved, what can serve as an equally unifying and compelling vision around which to construct a new society? Or as Chris Marker observed in his 1980 documentary San Soleil, coincidentally contemplating the decay of Guinea-Bissau's 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 until 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 anti-colonial wave culminating in the defeat of apartheid in 1994. The revolution's charismatic leader, the Cape Verdean agronomist, Amilcar Cabral, was assassinated on the eve of victory in January 1973 by Portuguese assisted mainland nationalists. The fragile union between Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde islands itself was finally dissolved in a bloodless military coup in 1980 led by an old guerilla commander, the present president, Joćo 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 bush 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 guerilla war is one of the most accurate 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 unclear, even circuitous path, 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 guerilla commander, serves to underline the sense of solidarity developed among the freedom fighters.
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. It seems ironic 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 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. Back in the village, a young literacy teacher asks, "What does 'luta' mean?" 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." The revolution must evolve.
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 national development are transformed literally 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, a deity of the Balanta people, Guinea-Bissau's largest ethnic group inhabiting 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 party, 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 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 pursuing 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 reaffirmation of 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 seems here to rely on a mythopoeyic rather than a political solution. It is no doubt unfair to point out that atavistic values do not seem to have saved the country from the tragedy of the past 25 years. Cabral himself probably imagined some sort of socialist development path growing out of 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 collapsed and nothing but neo-liberal structural adjustment policies had taken its place. Thus the question which Gomes raises and answers 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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"The movie follows the historical jugular with an eye to revising closely-held canonical views....Gomes proves a true scholar with a celluloid quill... I can't think of a better cinematic introduction to lusophonic Africa than MORTU NEGA."
Mustafah Dhada, Clark Atlanta University
"The role of women in the protracted struggle for independence in Guinea-Bissau has found its film and heroine. It should find a welcome place in classrooms and art houses."
"The true revelation of FESPACO. It has a personal tone, full of freshness and emotion. Provides a non-heroic vision of history that shows the natural participation of women in the struggle."
"A sweeping historical panorama of a nation's history. Introduces a promising talent to the African scene. It sidesteps sociology and ethnology for a human perspective on events."