African Filmmaker Profiles: Flora Gomes
Flora (Florentino) Gomes was born on December 31, 1949 in Cadique, Guinea-Bissau. Gomes was born to illiterate parents and grew up under Salazar’s oppressive Portuguese colonial regime. He supported the Bissau-Guinean resistance to colonialism led by Amilcar Cabral. Gomes left Guinea-Bissau for Cuba, where he completed his high school and went on to study Film at the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography under the guidance of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. He continued his Film Studies in Senegal under the direction of Senegalese filmmaker and film historian Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. Gomes was inspired to become a film director after discovering the films of Ousmane Sembene.
Gomes had the honour of filming his country’s independence ceremony in 1974. Guinea-Bissau was visited by many socialist filmmakers and reporters after its independence and Gomes assisted many of them with filming. By the end of the 1970s, Gomes was working as a photographer and cameraman for the Ministry of Information. In 1979 he served as an intern with French filmmaker Chris Marker, whose film Sans Soleil is partly filmed in Guinea-Bissau. Gomes later co-directed three short films: “La reconstruction” (The Reconstruction), “Anos no oça luta” and “Regresso do Cabral” (The return of Cabral), these last two with fellow Bissau-Guinean filmmaker and Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography graduate Sana na N’hada, who would later be the assistant director for Gome’s film Mortu Nega.
In 1987, Gomes made his first feature film (It was Guinea-Bissau’s first fictional feature length film), Mortu Nega. After the film was selected for showing during Critic’s Week at the Venice Film Festival, Gomes was heralded as a great new voice in African cinema. Gomes has gone on to become one of Africa’s most internationally well respected filmmakers.
In 1994, Gomes was distinguished with the Order of Merit for Culture by the Tunisian government. In the same year, he was also named a member of the principal jury at the Tunisia’s Carthage Film Festival. In 1996, Gomes was knighted by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.
In 2002, Gomes was recognized in Portugal by the Guinean community for his services in making Guinean culture known around the world. In 2004, he was a member of the jury at the Amien Film Festival. Also in 2004, a retrospective of Gomes’ films was showcased at the first Brown University African Film Festival.
In 2005, Gomes received an award from the University of Lisbon in Portugal in recognition of his body of work. Also in 2005, Gomes was the president of the ECOWAS jury at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO)
In 2006,Gomes’ was a visting artist and professor in Brown University’s Africana Studies Department in 2006.
About the films of Flora Gomes
According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:
Flora Gomes has international stature as a distinguished filmmaker whose works are aesthetically innovative and historically significant texts of African and global culture. It is notoriously difficult for major African filmmakers to produce a sustained output of high quality, because of the historical legacy of profound funding and infrastructural deficiencies on the continent. Yet Gomes makes a point of residing in his native country of Guinea-Bissau, and despite the severe material constraints this poses to film-making, has completed a number of shorts, starting in 1977, as well as five full-length feature films, beginning with “Mortu Nega” in 1988. Filmed using local languages and shot above all in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, as well as France and Portugal, his features have won awards at prestigious international film festivals and are invariably discussed in textbooks on African cinema and post-colonial film. His work often deals with questions of history and memory, particularly regarding the national liberation struggle, as well as notions of modernization and the conceptualization of identity. Gomes’s films go beyond many conventional binomials. For example, his female characters depict a sophisticated African feminism , by turns militant and gentle, tragic and comic, seldom seen in representations of black women. His more recent work, especially “Po di sangui,” broaches the timely subject of environmental degradation , by using a complex layering of symbols, landscape and nature, drawn from indigenous African systems of knowledge and belief. Both the aesthetic quality and powerful narratives of these later works touch audiences everywhere.
Mortu Nega (1987)
Film Description from California Newsreel:
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.
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….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, João 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.
The first feature film that Gomes directed, Mortu Nega, which means Those Whom Death Refused, was selected for showing during the Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival in 1988. Mortu Nega won the Bronze Tanit and the Prize for the Best Actress at the Carthage Film Festival. It also was awarded the prize for the Best Film and the Best Actress at the 1988 Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO).
Trailer for Mortu Nega available online
Description of Mortu Nega from California Newsreel available online
The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1992)
Film Description from California Newsreel:
…Udju Azul di Yonta (The Blue Eyes of Yonta) is one of the few recent African films to make the disillusionment of the revolutionary generation its primary subject – and offer a glimmer of hope for the future. Flora Gomes (born 1949) is a member of the generation which fought for Guinea-Bissau’s independence. This director’s first feature film, indeed the first feature film made in Guinea-Bissau, Mortu Nega (Those Whom Death Refused), commemorates that nation’s arduous independence struggle, while hinting at its subsequent bureaucratization. Udju Azul di Yonta can be seen as a continuation and commentary on this film.
In Udju Azul di Yonta, the most compelling character is Vicente, a disenchanted hero of the independence struggle who has only grudgingly adapted himself to post-revolutionary society. He is a figure with whom many disappointed Western ’60s activists will identify. As “Comrade Boss” of a fish warehouse, he continues to work for the development of his country against staggering odds. A power outage (a recurrent motif in the film) has spoiled an entire catch of fish and the fishermen and fishmongers are furious. Corruption and kickbacks have become rampant in the city; unbridled free market capitalism is triumphant. Vicente confesses to an old comrade, “We thought the revolution was for everyone, but it is only here for a few of us.” Despairing at his own compromised ideals, he exclaims, “Vicente no longer exists; I am a vulture,” devouring the carcass of his revolutionary hopes.
Vicente is so despondent he doesn’t notice that Yonta, the beautiful daughter of two of his old comrades, is infatuated with him. Yonta represents the generation which has grown up since liberation whose heads are full of dreams of fashion, music and European affluence. In fact, one of the guilty pleasures of this film is noting how revolutionary culture has given way to stunning couture.
Yonta, for her part, is unaware of the attentions of a third character, Zé, a poor student from the country. He anonymously sends her love poems cribbed from a book written about a Swedish girl. One reads, “In the cold long nights when snow caresses your windows…the blue of your eyes is the immensity of the sky over my life.” The younger generation’s incongruous dreams give the film its striking title.
Flora Gomes identifies a fourth important character, “quite an unusual one, who gradually changes everything, the motion and color of the film: it is Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, where I have always lived…For fifteen years, while I reluctantly grew older, I saw Bissau recovering its youth almost every day. I heard it switching to another language, another dream, another aim.”
Gomes’s second feature film, The Blue Eyes of Yonta, was produced in 1992. It was selected for the “Un certain regard” section at the Cannes Film Festival, and won the Bronze Tanit and the OAU (Organization of African Unity) prize at the Carthage Film Festival. “Os Olhos Azuis de Yonta” won also won the Best Actress Prize at FESPACO, and the Special Jury Prize at Greece’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
Trailer for The Blue Eyes of Yonta available online
Description of the film from California Newsreel available online
Tensions of Modernity in Flora Gomes’ The Blue Eyese of Yonta by K. Ogunfolabi (academic essay available online)
Po di Sangui (1996)
Film Description from The African Film Library:
This film is a joint collaboration between several European and African countries, and is said to be among the most elaborate, high-tech films of the African film genre. Exquisitely photographed and filled with archetypal figures to create a poetic look at nature’s revenge against those who would exploit her, it is set in the forest village of Amanha Lundju, a place where the birth of children is celebrated by the planting of a tree. The trees are considered spiritual twins. But for every tree planted, the rapacious state destroys many more for firewood and lumber.
The beauty of Po di Sangui is the insight it gives into the nature of rural African culture. The veil between the world of the living and the dead is not absolute, as in Western culture. The living communicate with the dead through visions, conversing with trees, and signs. Conflict erupts when scientists arrive who neither respect nor believe in the power of rural culture. The people must decide if the solution is isolation from the modern world, embracing it, or a mixture of the two. Each viewing of this gripping feature provides deeper insights into the dilemma.
Po di Sangui, which means Tree of Blood, is Gomes’ third feature film, was screened in the official competition at Cannes in 1996 where it was nominated for the Golden Palm Award. Po di Sangui also won the Silver Tanit Award at the Carthage Film Festival.
Trailer for Po di Sangui available online
Description of the film available online
Nha Fala (2002)
Set in the gorgeous pastel cities of the Cape Verde Islands, the film avoids the usual grim images of Africa, locating itself instead halfway between Brazilian Carnival and African politics. Fatou Ndiaye (from the French TV hit series Fatou, The Malian) plays Vita, a young African woman who aspires to be a singer, but is prevented from doing so by a longstanding curse which she circumvents in an especially beautiful, ingenious, and musical way; seizing the chance to speak and sing as a woman for her generation. This may be the only musical that has rousing, danceable numbers that critique identity politics and ballot-box democracy. 2002, Portugal, France, Luxembourg, color, 35mm, in Creole with English subtitles, 110 minutes.
Nha fala, which means My Voice, is Gomes’s fourth feature film. It was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival competition. Nha fala also won the city prize at the Amiens Festival in 2002 (France), and the Grand Prize at the Vie d’Afrique Festival in Montreal in 2003. It was the only African film selected to be screened during the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.
Flora Gomes had this to say about Nha Fala:
Whenever Africa is spoken about or depicted, it is always in terms of the aid we receive, war, people dying of starvation, sick people . . . These things do of course exist in Africa: Africans kill other Africans, and nobody knows why we go to war, yet it still goes on. But there is another side to Africa, and that is what I wanted to show. It is a side you never see on your television screens in the West. That is why I made this film. I wanted people to see our Africa, the Africa of my dreams, the Africa that I love and that I would like my children to know one day. It is a happy Africa, where people dance, where people can speak freely. It is my take on the future for a new generation.
In the fallout of Guinea-Bissau’s civil war, Gomes had to flee his homeland. Surprisingly, these events inspired him to make a film far brighter and more light-heartened than his earlier work-the musical comedy Nha Fala. The conditions in Guinea-Bissau after the 1998 war, also meant that Gomes would have to find another location for his film. He chose Cape Verde. In reality, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau are deeply linked. Cape Verde is the island nation just across from Guinea-Bissau. The Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s parents actually came from Cape Verde and he was also educated there. Both countries speak Portuguese Creole and from 1974 to 1980, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were one nation. Therefore, the connections between the two small countries run quite deep. However, most of the cast and crew actually came from Guinea-Bissau, including Bia Gomes who has been in all of Gomes’ films. The film’s star, Fatou N’Diaye, is actually French of Senegale descent. Canadian film-goers would have seen her in the film adaptation of French-Canadian writer Gil Courtemanche’s novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. For Nha Fala, N’Diaye learned Portuguese Creole in two months.
Despite the more whimsical nature of this film, it is still political. The film opens with a dedication to Amilcar Cabral: “Father of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, assassinated in 1973”. Gomes wishes to evoke all the promise of Cabral’s struggle for independence, which he himself never lived to see. Despite all the disappointments and horrors of post-colonial Africa, that promise can still be a resevoir of hope for Africa’s younger generations.
Trailer for Nha Fala available online
Review of Nha Fala available online
Flora Gomes on Wikipedia
Flora Gomes Profile from Brown University available online
Portuguese Colonialism in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde
Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)
Image available online of a 1974 Demonstration in New York outside the Portuguese Consulate to commemorate the memory of Amilcar Cabral and protest against Portuguese Colonialism in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau
The History of Guinea-Bissau by LEAD International (webpage available online)
History of Cinema in Guinea-Bissau (article available online)
Guinea-Bissau: If a Boat Moored by P. Cardoso (article available online)
The Weapon of Theory (1966) (Political Speech available online)
National Liberation and Culture (1970) (Political Speech available online)
Amilcar Cabral’s theory of class suicide and revolutionary socialism by Tom Meisenhelder (1993) (Academic Essay available online)
Amilcar Cabral: an extraction from the literature (1998) (Academic Essay available online)
Critical Reflection on Amilcar Cabral’s Criteria for Citizenship by Victor Alumona (Academic Esssay available online)
Amilcar Cabral’s Vision of Diplomacy by Carmen Neto (Essay available online)
Portrait of Cabral by Ana Maria Cabral
Cabral’s Speeches and Writings available online in Portugese