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Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema

by Margarida Cardoso
First Run/Icarus Films, New York. 2003
52 minutes, col./b/w., Portuguese with English sub-titles
Sale/video: $390; Rental/video: $100
Website: http://www.frif.com/.

Reviewed by Andrea Dahlberg


For some 5 years, from 1969 to April 1974, Samora Machel led the Frente de Liberataçã de Frelimo in attacking the oppressive Portuguese administration in Mozambique. The Portuguese had reduced much of the indigenous population to a condition of virtual slavery. Victory came on 25 April 1975 when the dictatorship of President Marcello Caetano was overthrown in Lisbon. Desperate to rid itself of its colonies, Portugal transferred power to Frelimo, which refused to hold elections, and suppressed the power of its rivals. After a period of transitional government Frelimo established a single party Marxist-Leninist state with Samora Machel as president.

Machel was a hugely charismatic figure and a great orator who understood the power of cinema in disseminating Frelimo’s ideology throughout the country and the role it could play in building a new nation. One of his first acts as President was to establish the National Institute of Cinema and to recruit and train workers until it employed more than 250 people. Films were made of Machel’s speeches and shown in cinemas in towns. They were taken to remote country populations by special cinema vans supplied by the Soviet Union. Machel could thus replicate himself and speak directly through his image to a largely illiterate population thrilled by the liberation of their country and drawn by the novelty of cinema.

The liberation of Mozambique thus coincided with the birth of a flourishing national cinema initially producing documentary films and later venturing, less successfully, into fiction. Cuba and the Soviet Union sent equipment and personnel, Godard visited Mozambique and recommended setting up a television industry, and filmmakers from Brazil and Yugoslavia arrived. Mozambique became famous for its cinema.

Margarida Cardoso tells the story of the rise and fall of this cinema over an 11-year period from the liberation to Machel’s death in a plane crash in October 1986. She draws on footage from the films made during this period and intersperses it with interviews with many of the film-makers and personnel who describe how the films were made, the conditions which produced them and their increasingly strained relationship with Machel’s government.

The footage of Machel himself is remarkable and evidences his great charisma and oratorical skill. It is easy to see why one director says that Machel made his films; all he had to do was ensure that there was a camera to hand. But Machel’s talents were ones he used best in the service of war. He had no talent for peace. He allowed Mozambique to be used as a base for guerrilla attacks on his far more powerful neighbours who retaliated with overwhelming force and brutality. The effect on Mozambique was devastating and it became the world’s poorest country. Filmmakers were confined to the cities and could only venture into the countryside under armed guard. A film producer describes how the condition of the countryside was so distressing that she could only bear it by thinking of it as a film, a form of unreality.

This is a fascinating idea, which runs throughout Cardoso’s film. During the heady days of liberation, cinema is understood as a progressive force and a tool to build a new reality. There is much talk of "capturing the image of the people and delivering it back to the people." Cinema is seen as a means of over-coming alienation and of sweeping aside the veil of illusion. But as war and devastation swept the country and Frelimo became ever more oppressive the filmmakers talk of film as having nothing whatsoever to do with reality. The producer mentioned above even goes so far as to welcome this development as reality itself had become intolerable.

What is strange about Kuxa Kanema is that the filmmakers in it can describe this descent into hell and the way in which this state sponsored cinema was implicated in it and yet remain nostalgic for the cinema of that time. They still seem to understand the cinema of this entire 11-year period as the cinema of liberation when in fact they describe a far more subtle and terrible process of change. Neither these filmmakers nor Cardoso herself seem to have fully emerged from the state of bad faith, which predominated in the latter period of Machel’s regime.

Cardoso informs us that the current government prefers television and that the films of Frelimo lie rotting in a burnt out building. Cardoso deserves great credit for bringing us a glimpse of this cinema and beginning to analyse it. But this analysis has barely begun.




Updated 1st October 2004

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