Film festivals are limited by the juicy premieres secured by their directors and the quality of their programmers. They’re also frequently the only places to view films that would rarely be seen otherwise. Highlights of this year’s FIDMarseille included works that traveled beyond the European continent in search of lost (and unknown) connections, as well as those made beyond the shadow of Euro-American art cinema, notably in the Philippines. But first, to Africa.
Last year’s FIDMarseille opened with Miguel Gomes’s critically acclaimed Tabu. Gomes is one of several contemporary Portuguese filmmakers to use his country’s colonial past as a mirror held up to its present. João Viana’s The Battle of Tabatô superficially resembles Tabu (it’s shot in black and white in a former Portuguese colony in Africa), but the similarities end there. Where Gomes’s introspection into the contemporary legacies of Portuguese colonization in Lisbon and an unnamed African country largely follows Portuguese characters, Viana’s cast is entirely of African origin and his story is set in contemporary Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa. Thirty-odd years after Guinea-Bissau’s 1974 war of independence, an older man, a veteran of a native militia used by the Portuguese to fight against their countrymen, is unable to come to terms with his residual trauma from that experience. Having recently returned to his homeland from Portugal for his daughter’s wedding, he becomes emotionally overwhelmed and accidentally kills her during a psychotic episode. At this point, the film deteriorates, falling back on a narrative device no less tedious than Gomes’s colonial-era Portuguese hipsters screwing and playing rock n’ roll in the jungle—here, though, we’re in the company of an abstracted “African culture,” which, in the case of the villagers with whom the film concludes, involves playing traditional music as an alternative to killing one another. This is a compelling concept, but one that’s disconnected from the film’s otherwise stark aesthetic and critical perspective. It’s an easy and somewhat cheap ending for what begins as an original take on the legacy of Portuguese colonialism in a country that has produced few prominent filmmakers of its own.