Mortu Nega (1988) – refusing to give up

high school writing prompt rubricMortu Nega, like, is a movie that capitalizes on war without directly showing it. It is, as the title suggests, a movie about Those Whom Death Refused – the internally displaced people, the veterans, the widows and the orphans – that survived the independence struggle and are trying to start all over again. It is about those people who have lost almost all they had – houses, parents, brothers, friends, their land or even their lives – and yet benefited so little from the fruits of independence. While the movie is set in Guinea Bissau, and deals with the liberation struggle against the Portuguese settlers, it could have been the story of many post independence states: Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, DR Congo etc. Similar to the movie To Walk With Lions, Mortu Nega was financed by the state where the action is occurring. For developing countries, where money is often siphoned off to the pockets of the “liberators,” such an achievement is always worth mentioning.

Mortu Nega is one of the early movies made by Flora Gomez, and it’s a beautiful and thoughtful elegy of the lives of the war survivors, their challenges, their fears, their needs and expectations.

Diminga (Bia Gomez) and her husband Sako (Tunu Almada)

Diminga (Bia Gomez) and her husband Sako (Tunu Almada)

The movie is a progressive journey through the revolutionary process. It conveys various events that occurred between 1972 and 1975. It begins in the African jungle, (strangely reminding us of Tears of the Sun) where the guerrilla fighters walk in line trying to get to the safe camps. Their anxieties become our anxieties: the noises made by incoming helicopters could mean danger, the fear of stepping on the landmines planted along the roads can cost their lives, and the air attacks launched by Portuguese soldiers could cripple or kill innocent people, on the eve of victory. The faith of the brave men and women is as unclear as the path they’re taking through the forest. For the first five minutes or so, all the characters appear as one. And they are one – one force against colonialism united by the desire and the dream of a free country.  From all these anonymous characters – mostly played by an unprofessional and untrained cast – one young brave woman emerges. Her name is Diminga. She is young, beautiful and with a very expressive face, who is looking for her husband, Sako, a guerrilla commander who has been in the bush for years leading one of the liberation units. She eventually finds him alive and well, but an unexpected helicopter attack will get him shot in the leg.

After the war is over, these courageous soldiers and their wives return to their villages and try to adapt to the new reality. But they are now facing a new world that is ruled by rather strange laws. Money suddenly becomes an issue; friends are separated from their old “comrades;” a drought threatens to destabilize the already fragile social order; famine and political divisions certainly are more pressing issues than the fading memory of the revolution. In this new world, Diminga and Sako are struggling to live, and this proves even more difficult than staying alive in the bush.

mortu nega2Two particular scenes become emblematic of the contradictions of the post-independence state. Now that the war is over, the national administration sends teachers to help both children and adults learn how to speak and write Portuguese. In one of the lessons, the teacher asks the audience what fight (luta) means to them. It is a very dramatic moment as different views on this rather simple word point to the internal divisions and expectations of the citizens of Guinea-Bissau. For a young woman, luta means getting enough food to feed her children. For Sako, a former soldier, luta meant fighting the Portuguese next to their comrades. The teacher apologetically concludes: “For you the struggle was yesterday, for her the struggle is today. A luta continua” – the struggle continues. The second notable scene is when Diminga goes to the capital, worried for her husband’s health. She is looking for Sako’s former commandments as she has no one else to go to. One of them is a well positioned bureaucrat who however denies knowing who Sako is, for fear that she came to extort money of him. Another old friend readily makes his car available and tries his best to assist Diminga and her husband. So easily is camaraderie forgotten, seems to suggest this powerful scene.

The last part of the movie is dedicated to something less pragmatic than war and personal hardships. The movie ends with a rain ceremony (following Diminga’s premonition) where hundreds of people gather together to sing and dance in hope that their ancestors will bring rain upon them and save their crops. The final ritual perhaps suggests the restoration of things, the revitalization of everyday life, the effervescence of rituals, culture and traditions and the return of hope and faith in people’s lives. “A luta continua” – the struggle continues.

This movie is rated 8/10

As no trailer for this movie is available, I leave you with Miriam Makeba’s famous song titled exactly

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