Kuxa Kanema: Mozambican film … and Godard
One of the upsides of reading off the cine-grid is the unexpected jolt of pleasure that comes from stumbling across an essay or work of fiction that happens to intersect with film culture in an intelligent fashion.
In the latest issue of n+1 (“Recessional”), Emily Witt contributes a fascinating piece on the birth of national cinema in Mozambique in the late ’70s, when the newly independent Marxist country was locked in a war with neighboring Rhodesia, the white-supremacist nation Robert Mugabe would later wrest control of and rechristen Zimbabwe. (Mugabe, a Maoist and longtime political prisoner of the Rhodesians, fled to Mozambique in 1974, where he based his rebel army. He is still Zimbabwe’s president and de facto leader.) “Cinema É Luxo” opens with the story of Gabriel Mondlane, a student in Maputo who is whisked from his chemistry class at a technical institute one morning by government troops. Instead of being sent to war, he is informed by the Ministry of Work that he will be “working in the movies.” Mondlane’s class was the first to matriculate from the National Institute of Cinema with hands-on experience in all aspects of film production; his specialty was sound. But the training went beyond mastering technical expertise. As Witt writes:
“The course lasted six months, but the government’s need to distribute news and propaganda was so great—most of the population was illiterate, and there was no television—that skills at the Institute were largely learned on the job. In addition to documentaries and a handful of fiction feature films, the Institute produced a weekly newspaper called Kuxa Kanema that ran prior to every movie theater screening and was toured through the countryside with generator-powered mobile cinema units. In grainy black and white, it told about the progress of the new government in educating the countryside, promoted health initiatives, discouraged belief in superstition and witchcraft, and documented the war against the Rhodesians. The filmmakers received combat training and accompanied troops to the border regions. Like everyone in the civil service, they also attended Saturday morning classes in Marxist theory. In the evenings they had screenings and discussions of films by directors like Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, and Wajda.”
Witt goes on to recount the year she spent in Maputo researching the Institute’s film projects, a few of which Jean-Luc Godard had glimpsed during a 1979 visit and written about for a diary he published in Cahiers du cinema. She watches a lot of film, too, “looking for a moment in history when utopian vision was not a United Nations Millennium Village but something locally grown, when Mozambique tired of serving as the developed world’s blank slate and resolved to project its own image.” Among the long-forgotten Super 8 docs and Kuxa Kanema newsreels are features like The Train of Life (the story of an army-led food-distribution railroad line under attack by Renamo guerrillas) and Time of the Leopards (a full-color epic about the war of independence from Portuguese colonials). The last of these films is shown to Witt by Mondlane, currently director of the Association of Mozambican Cineastes.
“Cinema É Luxo” is not available in its entirety online (there’s an excerpt here), unfortunately, so you can either subscribe to n+1 (highly recommended) or download the article for two bucks. Anyone interested in glimpsing actual footage from the Institute’s archive and learning more about this era in Mozambican film should check out Margarida Cardoso’s doc Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema, which screened at the 2005 New York African Film Festival and is available from Icarus Films.
Reviewing the film for the Village Voice, Edward Crouse wrote:
“On similar turf, Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema reaches peaks with 1978 footage of a super-rumpled Godard, popping into the newly liberated Mozambique with a “crazy” plan to put cameras into the peasants’ hands. A deflationary chronicle of the nation as seen through the Manichaean, Marxist lens of its state-sponsored newsreel series (also called Kuxa Kanema), Margarida Cardoso’s doc follows the gradually faltering effort of ebullient president Samora Machel to feed the nation with ideology. What remains today is a fire-gutted national film studio, civil servants waiting for their pensions to kick in. But right after Portugal’s 1975 eviction, Machel formed cultural alliances with Brazil and Cuba, with a revolutionary enthusiasm nowhere more palpable than in a bizarre leisure-suited chorus line inveighing against capitalism and apartheid (South Africa was Mozambique’s belligerent neighbor). Cardoso suggests that Kuxa the series may have been the nation’s premier cinematic event, but notes the tantalizing should-have-beens, such as Godard’s barely begun The Birth (of the Image) of Nation, an “anti-television” jab, or the country’s first fiction film, pitched as a fascinating Russ Meyer-meets-Che Yugoslavian co-production (“A nude guerrilla girl is running through the woods, chased by two soldiers. One is in love with her.”). What brave Mozambican will continue this work? Stay tuned.”