On Saturday, September 14, Mia Xing, new Bwogger and experimental-film-virgin, attended the first screening of Spell Reel at the Lenfest Center with the brilliant Riva Weinstein herself and fellow new and much cooler Guest Writer Emma Urofsky.
When I think about collective memory, and the empowerment and disempowerment that history is capable of, I remember my best friend. While presenting her research on the Songhai Empire and the erasure of African History by Europeans, she started crying. Our classmates thought she was probably over-caffeinated; I knew that, having grown up in Botswana, she was overwhelmed by the joy and frustration she felt as a result of connecting with a history deliberately lost. So I understood there was power in controlling the narrative of one’s history, but I had never engaged with the process of doing so, especially through the lens of experimental film.
In fact, having grown up in China, there are two things I haven’t tried: poptarts and any experimental films that are more than 30 minutes long. That is, until I watched Spell Reel by director Filipa César this weekend at Columbia’s Lenfest Center (loved the film, someone buy me a poptart).
True to its director’s vision of “ciné-archeology,” Spell Reel speaks in fragments. It documents a group of Guinean and European filmmakers’ effort to preserve film reels shot during Guinea-Bissau’s 1963-1974 War of Independence and share them with the public. Very much in line with the militant strategies of the time, the recovered reels reveal stunning examples of true guerrilla filmmaking. Unfortunately, following the 1998 military coup and civil war, only fragments of the damaged reels remain.
The film’s synopsis describes how César uses these salvaged fragments as “a visionary prism of shrapnel to look through”– how beautiful, clever and miLdlY iNtiMiDAting, I thought. But how does that work? Taking up just part of the screen, the clips from the archives act like colorful little pieces inside a kaleidoscope. César juxtaposes them with scenes from present-day life in Guinea-Bissau. A new reality arises, part archive and part real life.
In one scene, recovered footage shows several Guinean students clearing fields in Cuba, “voluntary” labor intended to build humility. The other side of the screen shows Guinean people today volunteering to clear grass from the sides of their roads. Later in the film, a Guinean audience member comments, “This land still hurts.” These scenes highlight the ongoing work of reclaiming and taking care of what was taken away during a colonial past.
More recovered footage shows a clerk counting bills, illustrating when Guinea-Bissau first founded its own bank and currency, a claim of financial agency that increased their independence from Portugal. This scene floats next to a modern clip of the meticulous process of digitizing the footage from the reels: hands gentle, voices hushed, a long roll of film set up in front of a laptop screen. The reclamation of economic agency seems to walk hand in hand with the reclamation of this pivotal point in history, even though these events are separated by several decades.
It is explained that during the guerrilla war, the Portuguese used sound as a weapon, a “techno-mimetic” trap. The Guinean guerrilla fighters would not enter a jungle that was “too quiet,” knowing the Portuguese were lying in wait there. In response, the Portuguese played the sounds of the jungle to conceal themselves.
In the scene that follows, Guinean filmmaker Sana Na N’Hada explains how the camera they used in the early 70’s “is not silent,” that it made a loud noise that could be heard by the Portuguese 50 meters away. The camera, too, is powerful, and a certain martyrdom is associated with being a militant filmmaker– “if the enemy had to choose between shooting who has a gun and who has a camera,” stated one veteran, they would choose the camera.
In addition to drawing parallels between the footage and the contemporary life of Guineans, the film explores how different communities interact with the moving images. At a screening in Boé, the city where Guinea-Bissau declared its independence, children raise their arms to play with the lights and shadows on screen. They have as much power to join the picture as do the reels being projected. The film is interspersed with comments from people at various screenings: a Guinean man singing “Tell me a secret, tell us the truth”, a white man asking the live narrator to repeat what was just explained to him, and an American woman drawing a connection to the Civil Rights movement.
In one scene, a former guerrilla fighter expresses how she feels after watching clips from the archive. Today, she says with utter pride and euphoria, she saw something she hasn’t seen in a long time. The very sounds and images of war are familiar and make her feel rooted. We often think of political conflicts as destructive to art, yet the kaleidoscopic footage in Spell Reel is not the aftermath of violence, but the very creation and documentation of it. The violent struggle of decolonization is given beauty and dignity in these film clips. At one point, the film’s narration says that this archive is a product of violence and care.
Feeling slightly cold in the theatre and, after absorbing two hours of experimental film, honestly holding on to my last two brain cells at this point, I reflected on my own viewing experience. I am watching a film about the potential impact of art on community, and its power to preserve or redefine history, at a venue on the Manhattanville campus, the very existence of which raises questions about displacement of and engagement with local residents.
To see people being empowered by anticolonial history is a very heartwarming thing. Spell Reel is accessible while also managing to be thought-provoking and intricately layered. A sign of mastery if I ever saw one. It made me remember why I wanted to have a meaningful time in college: to study and connect with history and literature that will ground my identity and my community.
The exhibit “After the End: Timing Socialism in Contemporary African Art“, presented in conjunction with this film screening, is on view now at the Wallach Gallery on the 6th floor of Lenfest.
Image via Wikimedia Commons