It’s a no-brainer that oppression in various guises is an ongoing trope in African culture: the current conflict in Mali derives at least in part from the power vacuum that developed in West Africa a couple of generations after the decline of colonial rule – which itself deepened the wounds left by centuries of slavery.
One of the most powerful ethnic groups in West Africa is the nearly exclusively Muslim Mandinka, known for its strong and traditionally music-based rendition of oral history. It’s to a cultural Mandinka stronghold in Guinea-Bissau that the aging Baio returns from Portugal to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Fatu to Mandinka musician Idrissa in João Viana’s The Battle of Tabatô (A batalha de Tabatô). Filmed in different saturations of black and white, with occasional flashes of blood red, Viana’s elliptic, parallel narratives follow Fatu and her father Baio from the coast inland to the remote Mandinka village of Tabato, at which Idrissa also arrives to celebrate his wedding. The perceived treachery of Baio’s military service for the Portuguese during Guinea-Bissau’s struggle for independence several decades ago throws a long shadow over his arrival. Increasingly his journey turns inward as he travels through old and guilt-ridden memories.
It’s tempting to place Viana’s film alongside last year’s Competition entry Tabu but Miguel Gomez’ black and white exploration of Portuguese colonial history presented a very different Africa. In Viana’s film, the battle has returned to an Africa in which the white man’s role is historically implicit – no longer visually evident. In attempting to reflect these changes, Viana has created a formally striking, anti-linguistic narrative. What cannot be expressed in words is left unsaid, or given a sound equivalent. The downside of this approach is the intrusive cinematographic presence established by the filmmaker, raising questions on how indigenous reaction to ongoing processes are best portrayed. Viana has found answers but diluted them by showing more than one protagonist on individual journeys through common collective territory, sacrificing singularity to the bigger conflicted picture. The resulting fragmentation might be intentional, but there are too many real (not politically implied) loose ends to make this a truly satisfying experience.
Which is why Elelwani from South Africa, although less adventurous, works better. The titular character returns to a village in the heart of Venda country by the border with Zimbabwe. Here she intends to introduce her boyfriend to the family and announce her departure for scholarship life in the US. However, having paid for her education, the Vendaking now sends envoys to negotiate her marriage as a return on his investment.
If Elelwani solves her dilemma by abandoning western notions that education can only be meaningful if it satisfies ambition, director Ntshavheni wa Luruli’s shows this as a process that involves not denial but transcendence. His best choice, however, is the prioritization of content over form, in particular in his rendition of landscape as reality, not metaphor. By revealing the natural environment as the bedrock of local mythology, he opens up a way for Elelwani to grasp the nettle of traditional values that are rooted in a specific place. Again, much is left unspoken, but Elelwani’s process of acceptance is more conventionally paced and depicted, encouraging (and allowing) us to follow her into a traditional way of life and admit the relevance of some unusual choices.