Filipa César: Spell Reel
by Jill Glessing
Portuguese artist Filipa César’s first feature film – the experimental documentary Spell Reel (2017) – is a poetic montage that explores the processes of recovery, archiving and display of a collection of abandoned film reels produced by Guinea-Bissau resistance fighters during and after their war of independence against Portugal (1963-1974).
Numerous entities appear in this highly collaborative project, but two figures, neither of whom contributed directly to the film, have particular presence: Amílcar Cabral, the Bissau-Guineans’ anticolonialist leader and the French Marxist film-essayist Chris Marker. Across continents, these figures shared beliefs in revolutionary politics and the importance of both education and film in these struggles. Cabral sent four young Guineans to receive film training at the Cuban Film Institute; Marker provided instruction and film equipment to groups in France during the 1968 factory worker occupations and, later, to Guineans during his half-year stay in Guinea-Bissau. As a history of political struggle and revolutionary cinema, Spell Reel pays tribute to and continues their legacy, and asks us to consider education as avant-garde work.
César shares with other contemporary European artists – including Renzo Martens and Sven Augustijnen – filmic explorations that grapple with their respective nations’ colonialist crimes in Africa. Portugal initiated the European slave trade and African colonization and was the last to withdraw its brutal rule; this dark legacy remains. Spell Reel shines a flickering light through that history, unearthing filmic evidence of resistance and offering hope for present and future struggles.
The Cuban-trained filmmakers documented their country’s struggles from 1963 to 1974. Neglected after a military coup in 1980, the films were recovered in 2001 but, because of improper storage, only about 40 of the original 100 hours of footage were salvageable. The National Film Institute of Guinea-Bissau, current holders of the archive, collaborated with Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art, to digitize the footage in Berlin. In 2011, César and two of the original four filmmakers – Sana na N’Hada and Flora Gomes – joined the project. To educate both sides of this colonial history, the digitized fragments were then presented as itinerant screenings across villages in Guinea-Bissau and European cities. César documented the project’s different stages digitally and, following Marker’s signature style, montaged her footage with the older black and white fragments. The new footage – of old film cans and their mouldy contents; the 16mm film running through fingers and the simultaneous appearance of its contents on a computer screen; the setting up of outdoor projection screens in towns across Guinea-Bissau; the original filmmakers and their audiences talking about their past and the film’s reception in the present – is playfully collaged with earlier footage of guerrilla meetings in forest camps, military activities and the post-independence establishment of a national currency. The old and new footage, merging past and present, combines in a patchwork.
The composition of the different imagery shifts within the frame, with silent black and white film often presented as an insert on either side of the frame, overlaid onto César’s footage or a black background. Text in small, typewriter-style font, in a tone recalling Marker’s intimate voice-over commentary, appears occasionally beside or beneath the imagery. As in dialectical montage, images and text combine to develop poetic resonances and pointed meanings. In one example, the concept of communal or networked strength emerges when a camera pan across a dense mangrove forest merges with scenes of jumbled electrical cables and hands plugging them into sockets in preparation for an outdoor screening, strings of film reels and rows of young fighters marching and singing. The accompanying text unites the imagery: “a cine-port opened into a time capsule film reels and magnetic tapes allowing cine-kinships to relate beyond the system of national and racial patterns matter de-processing for nearly 40 years in a misty milieu remains of a militant cinema praxis becoming re-inscribed.” César’s polyphonic splicing, too, adheres to such re-inscription.
Faces and bodies etched with patterns of mould and decay suggest relations of materiality and fragility between the decomposing celluloid film – lest we forget its gelatin emulsion is made from the bones of animals – and the bodies it once preserved. Time, bodies, memory can all slip away if not cared for. César’s project – of recovery, preservation and dissemination to an African population that knows little of its heroic past – reflects the importance of looking back in order to make preparations for the future.
The value of collaborative work is represented through every aspect of the film. In the earlier footage, rebels fought together for future independence, and after attaining it, in 1973, they attempted to construct a socialist society. César’s own footage features many individuals engaged in the processes of archiving and digitization, interviewing, discussing and setting up projections. Lastly, the organizations who supported the project span various historical, artistic, social and political interests. This exemplary model of communal work, the film suggests, is the methodology that will effect change. The values of both community and cultural engagement are figured forcefully by the voice of exiled South African singer Mariam Makeba in her performance at the 20th-anniversary celebration of Guinea-Bissau’s independence in 1976 and in the film’s closing soundtrack, when she urges: “We’ve got to rally, rally ’round the P.A.I.G.C. (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde).”
Spell Reel registers the last of the African independence struggles, an important victory that needs to be understood as just one stage in an admittedly very long road toward racial equality. In the film, black activist Angela Davis emphasizes this point to her Berlin audience when she situates present-day issues on that continuum: “Some of our ancestors were forced to migrate through slavery, and so … instead of conceptualizing the refugee movement or migrant crisis as a small movement, it should be seen as the most important movement of our time. This movement is the 21st-century civil rights movement.” As the title of César’s 2013 project suggests: Luta ca caba inda (the struggle is not over yet).