Two years and two weeks to the day after closing what we were all told at the time would be a speedy quarantine, the Harvard Film Archive is finally reopening its doors to the public on Thursday, March 24. (They’ve held a few private screenings for students and faculty over the past few months, but this is the first chance to come back for those of us who were too dumb to get into Harvard.) The spring schedule kicks off in welcoming writer-director Flora Gomes, this year’s recipient of the McMillan-Stewart Award for Distinguished Filmmaking, for screenings of her five feature-length dramas.
The 72-year-old Bissau-Guinean filmmaker studied in Cuba under the legendary Santiago Álvarez and worked as an assistant to French New Wave master Chris Marker, before returning to his native country to make a series of powerful images confronting the legacy of Portuguese colonization. to reign. But for such a long-delayed reopening, it has to start with a party first. Gomes’ 2002 “My Voice” is his happiest and most effervescent film, an old-school musical in which the streets of Cape Verde come alive with songs. Against a backdrop of pastel-painted buildings, young Vita (Fatou N’Diaye) fends off foolish suitors and dares not sing along with the bustling crowd, because an old family curse claims she will die if she does.
But after a trip to Paris during which she falls in love with the very lucky Pierre (Jean-Christophe Dollé) and cuts an album, Vita becomes an international song sensation. The hard part is coming home to break the news to his superstitious mother (the director’s partner and frequent collaborator Bia Gomes) in an elaborate reveal that involves faking his own death and a parade of dancing coffins decorated with tropical fish. On the surface, “My Voice” seems far happier than the rest of the director’s films, and as Gomes explained to a reporter, “Whenever Africa is mentioned or depicted, it’s always in terms of help we receive, the war, the people who are starving, the sick… I want people to see our Africa, the Africa of my dreams, the Africa that I love… It is a happy Africa, where people are dancing, where people can talk freely. That’s why I made this film.”
As feisty as the movie is, it’s not all frivolity. Gomes slips some sly social commentary into the songs, such as when the village children yearn for “Nikes and Coca-Cola,” or when Vita is surprised to discover that the Portuguese who ruled her country for hundreds of years work as servants. in Paris. No matter how fine the central storyline, the struggle to reconcile ancient tribal beliefs with the modern world is one that resonates throughout his filmography, dating back to his first – and most powerful – picture, 1988’s “Mortu Nega.” .
The title translates to “Those Death Denied”, and the first fiction film made in Guinea-Bissau follows Diminga (again Bia Gomes) and her husband Sako (Tunu Eugenio Almada) in 1973, during the last days of the independance War. The first half of the film chronicles the inner workings of the revolution, a long process of schlepping supplies and weapons while traversing dangerous terrain, under the ever-present threat of Portuguese helicopters. (I can’t help but think the film was an influence on Steven Soderbergh’s underrated 2008 epic “Che,” which shared a similar focus on day-to-day grunt work.) But the second half gets a little trickier, wondering how to start a country over once the war is won.
Sako suffers from an old injury, explaining that he didn’t have time to care about it while they were fighting but now that he can rest he notices how much it hurts. Gomes loves stark metaphors like that, summing up how difficult these characters are forging a new normal. (The drought doesn’t help matters either.) Such coping challenges are also plentiful in his tongue-in-cheek 1992 romantic comedy “Yonta’s Blue Eyes,” in which a revolution hero struggles with life. as an ordinary, revered citizen. by the younger generations but devoid of meaning. It’s a brilliantly funny prank about an anonymous love letter and mistaken identities, in which a bridal party is interrupted by the offer of a condom, “so the husband doesn’t bring AIDS home.” . (This particular gift doesn’t sit well with guests.) Gomes keeps one eye on the politics and the other on the wedding cake falling into the pool.
His 1996 “Tree of Blood” pushes further into the realm of myth, told in the style of an ancient folk tale in which modern human deforestation efforts collide with a vengeful Mother Nature and a blowing wind. talks to a select few. The auto-translated captions on the YouTube upload I watched were pretty dodgy, so I’m not sure I really caught all the nuances, but you don’t have to understand the dialogue to appreciate the striking images and surprises of the film. And again we have a clash between tribal rituals and contemporary society, contemplating how much of the past we should bring with us into the present.
The series ends with Gomes’ English-language debut film, 2012’s heavily metaphorical “The Children’s Republic,” which stars Danny Glover as the only adult in the remnants of a war-ravaged country ruled by helpless children. to grow up. Full of daring realistic and magical artifices, like a pair of glasses that can see into people’s future and a killer soundtrack by Youssou N’Dour, the film suffers from the fact that some young actors struggle with the stylized dialogue and poetic, and it can sometimes feel like Gomes is trying to cram a few too many concepts into one movie. But what is powerful is something found in every film in this series: a candid assessment of how war stunts the growth of peoples and their nations, and how even in independence, it is a daily struggle to persevere.
“The Films of Flora Gomes” airs at the Harvard Film Archive from Thursday, March 24 through Sunday, April 3.