Like many leaders in the decolonization movements of the mid-20th Century, the Cape Verdean and Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amílcar Cabral understood the power of cinema. Amidst their struggle to break free of Portuguese rule in the early 1970s, he encouraged young aspiring filmmakers like Flora Gomes and Sana Na N’Hada to travel to Cuba to learn the craft. They then returned home to document their struggle, shooting a wealth of footage — some of it was later exhibited, but a great deal of it went on to molder in poorly maintained storage. In her 2017 debut feature Spell Reel, Portuguese director Filipa César collaborates with Gomes, Na N’Hada, and their contemporaries to rescue this lost footage, reawakening these remnants of the revolution through restorative and preservation techniques. Such practice informs a great deal of the rest of César’s work. She uses filmic essays to critically scrutinize the stories around objects and contrast them with living memory, much of it focused around the cinema and history of Guinea-Bissau. Spell Reel is now the namesake of an online screening series that Metrograph is hosting featuring César’s films.
The juxtaposition between artifact and personal testimony is often embodied quite literally in these films. In Spell Reel, a recurrent motif is the picture-in-picture effect, with César superimposing images from revolutionary film reels over her recordings of those same reels being cleaned, or over interviewees like Gomes reminiscing about the circumstances in which they captured the footage. Quantum Creole (2020), which examines the perseverance (and vanishing) of tradition through the practice of musician and paper weaver Zé Interpretador, layers semitransparent weaving patterns and other images over many shots.
Other essays make the juxtaposition a matter of competing physical presences. Conakry (2013), an unbroken 10-minute shot (lasting the length of the 16mm film spool used to shoot it) situates itself in a gallery-like space in which a 1972 newsreel about the war of liberation is being projected, occasionally shifting focus for commentary by women in the same room who contextualize both the events of the reel and the journey the reel itself took to get to that room. Cacheu (2012) applies the same conceit to a shot of a lecturer telling the stories of four different colonial-era statues, cunningly switching back and forth from the speaker to the projected images so that a wealth of different visuals can play out within a single room without the need of a cut.
César’s interest in contrasting tangible relics with human memory is perhaps most simply and elegantly expressed in 2011’s The Embassy. This is another single-shot film, though longer, at nearly 40 minutes. Only the hands of archivist Armando Lona are seen as he flips through a photo album assembled by an unnamed colonizer who took the pictures over the course of the 1940s and ’50s. Lona both explains what we are looking at and offers his own speculation over the photographer’s motivations and choices in framing. It is simultaneously a monologue on the colonial gaze and a method of reclaiming the subjects of that gaze as people. The film also tests the limits of its own methodology — often Lona will simply let a page stand open for a few long seconds, allowing the viewer to study it, before moving on. There just might not be much he can add. In these kinds of collaborations, César seeks to help Bissau-Guineans tell their own stories, utilizing the materials of the archive in all kinds of novel ways.
Spell Reel: A Filipa César Showcase is available to stream via Metrograph through June 24.