Still from Filipa César’s Spell Reel (2017) (all images courtesy the filmmaker)

Since its early days, cinema has shown its ability to raise political awareness; in the 1920s, Dziga Vertov used the medium to spread his socialist message to the far reaches of Soviet Russia. This ingrained potential of cinema to educate and mobilize animates Spell Reel, the debut feature film by Filipa César, now playing at the Museum of Modern Art. The Portuguese artist documents the digitization of revolutionary films from Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony that gained its independence in 1973. At the forefront of this process are the leaders of the country’s pioneering cinema movement: Sana Na N’Hada (who also wrote Spell Reel’s screenplay) and Flora Gomes. N’Hada and Gomes filmed the Bissau-Guinean liberation movement in the 1960s and made the first national fiction film, Mortu Nega, in 1988.

César incorporates the archival footage — most of it previously, vastly unknown — into her film and also shows how it has been received, first in Guinea-Bissau and then in Europe. Of particular note are the images of the Bissau-Guinean revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral, who encouraged the use of cinema in the struggle and was assassinated less than a year before liberation. We see his likeness repeated, on posters that line the country roads and on banners at revolutionary powwows, and finally witness him in a jungle setting, addressing his fellow revolutionary soldiers. We also hear testimonies of those who joined his ranks as both educators and fighters; N’Hada himself took part in the revolutionary army and captured Cabral on film.

The desire for self-autonomy rings powerfully throughout Spell Reel. One early shot shows bills in the new Bissau-Guinean currency, signaling that ideological and political independence must be followed by an economic one. Yet César’s film is not just about the past. In 2012, after a military coup in Guinea-Bissau, N’Hada and Gomes quickly gathered the archival footage and brought it back to Berlin for painstaking digitization. Then, in 2014, the pair traveled back home to present the digitized films. Inspired by Chris Marker’s visit to Guinea-Bissau, where he showed his own films in villages, the two created a mobile outdoor cinema and took it to the original places where the footage had been shot. César recorded the screenings and the discussions that followed them.

Still from Filipa César’s Spell Reel (2017)

In Spell Reel, her visual method is that of simultaneity: she often presents the archival images as smaller windows within larger frames that, in turn, contain present-day footage. This method of juxtaposing old images with recent ones allows César to present the story — and history — in a nonlinear way. In one juxtaposition, we see the digitized image in the small window and a roll of film being handled in the larger frame — the past and present overlap. At times, the images can overwrite our attempts to fix their meaning. In the press materials, César quotes N’Hada as writing to her in an email, “It can become an obsession for us to want to control the image that one day we produced accidentally, saying ‘that’s for history.’ … Yet the image gives itself a new life, a new destiny, with or without us. It frees itself of our guardianship.”

César poignantly captures the desire to free the image, or rather, to reactivate it by incorporating it into a broad historical narrative. At one community screening, N’Hada watches himself and a group of women plowing a field, as he narrates the circumstances of his studying film. In this way, the images gain new urgency by being reinserted into a public discourse. Spell Reel is about the importance of sharing images, particularly in a setting in which there has been little investment in cultivating a deep sense of the past. In Guinea-Bissau, it seems that the current, ongoing economic and political woes are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. And when N’Hada and Gomes take the films back to Berlin, we watch Western researchers ask questions at public screenings, revealing how little is still known about Guinea-Bissau’s history outside the country. The situation is even more poignant because the archival films were originally in such bad shape that the Portuguese Cinematheque deemed them irrelevant when approached to digitize them. César does not conceal the damage — some images are near blanks, while others disintegrate before our eyes.

Still from Filipa César’s Spell Reel (2017)

Spell Reel’s overall impulse is restorative — to make whole the tiniest bits, to rescue that which has been left to fragmentation, marginalized. The gesture recalls Anne Carson’s book If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, in which meaning emerges from elision, from negative space. Can we make use of fragments — and, more importantly, can their meanings reach us? César suggests they can — or, at the very least, that we can breathe new life into them. In her spare onscreen text, she mentions “re-inscription.” Indeed, this is César’s guiding principle: to allow the recuperated footage to reinscribe itself on public memory. N’Hada and Gomes have given their project an apt name: Luta ca caba inda, which means, in English, “The struggle is not yet over.”

Filipa César’s Spell Reel screens at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 3. 

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.