Flows and tourism: notes from "As Cidades e as Trocas", by Luísa Homem and Pedro Pinho

1. Chinese workers in stables, that’s how the movie starts. The heavy work of displaced labor immediately takes us to the globalization of the world of work, bringing to the fore a geopolitical vision throughout the movie. There will be no toponymic identification throughout, but I know (we sense) that we are in São Vicente, Cabo Verde. 

We move on to the aridity surrounded by sea that makes this island, and its goat paths, from Monte Verde to Ribeira Julião. We perceive the conditions of the space and the moment, more lasting than it may seem, of transformation that the movie sets out to witness. 

The synopsis synthesizes really well the thesis of “As Cidades e as Trocas” of Luísa Homem and Pedro Pinho (2014): “The film seeks to make a silent record of the arrival of an economy of scale, its flows and its effects on the transformation of the physical and human landscape of an island”. The title is based of “As Cidades Invisíveis” by Italo Calvino, which describes the trip of Marco Polo through the Mongol Empire, selecting the singularity of each of its landscapes, constructions, and population.


2. The Trades. One sequence documents the tense interplay between the various scales of the economy. The process of becoming-commodity-product-housing: in the scenario of cranes and containers at the port, the unloaded sand will be transported, sieved, transformed into cement, into brick, with which the houses are made. We see the houses in the landscape, we see that the affections of the houses have this origin in matter, but we rarely know who built them. 

From Chinese manpower we switch to Cape Verdean workers inside of a house in construction. Juntamon working, happy when it’s time to eat. An imperative parenthesis to praise civil construction in Cabo Verde, which has been guided by creative solutions that make up for the technological and material shortages. Unfinished houses, due to unforeseen events and the unavailability of funs that plague the construction work and because they were tailored to the possibilities, are frequent in the design of the island’s hills. A way of being in the landscape and in life. That aspect manifest a liberty in the composition of the urban creation itself, like the architect Cristina Salvador described the creole houses: “they grow in height, climbing and leaning over the street, juxtaposing themselves in a lego construction, improvised, usually unfinished, building frozen in time and other always growing, without realizing if it’s being built or disassembled, in elevations of free composition, exuberant but detailed”, in “Cidade trazida/cidade levada”, revista Dá Fala, nº2 (2004).

From the struggle to meet real housing needs, the film moves us to the joy of Carnival: The Mandingas group prepares to descend from the hill to the city. They mix Fula and battery oil with tar, camouflage themselves in black, put on straw skirts and rehearse the dance steps with which for years, between fright and provocation, they have paraded at the Mindelo Carnival recovering a vague matrix of continental Africa, so often silent on Cape Verdean identity issues. They are grotesque figures that wander among the crowd, in a fun game of repulsion and attraction. 

It makes me think about the distance and lack of knowledge (and often racism) on the part of Cape Verdeans in relation to Africans on the west coast.

In the film, we are left with the feeling of boredom in the lazy streets of the center of Mindelo, fueling the suspense prior to the invasion of music, dances, and masquerades from all parts of the island who, much like the Mandingas group, flow there on carnival days. The busiest in the calendar. 


3. Finally, we get to the other side of the subject of the movie: the tourism. Tourists disembark their cruises (a brief image of the ships in Lisbon makes the connection to the european tourism). We hear German being spoken. The tourists, already on land, pass by on a transfer, waving at the cameras. Somewhat disoriented and a bit pathetic, they make portraits of each other and photograph the beaches and mountains. What does Cabo Verde have to offer? I mean, in the global context of tourism’s proliferation and growing offer specialization? The tropical climate, the landscapes - mountain reliefs broken by the sea, the beach, the rest, the hiking, a certain cultural life, the melancholy atmosphere of the music “morna” (although those who want to break the bubble of rudimentary offerings will find, particularly in São Vicente, theater programs, and life in the peripheries of the city). In addition to the beach, the morabeza and kindness of the Creoles are other attractions of the volcanic islands of Macaronesia. 

Given the scarcity of stimuli, small adventures like a stuck car can make tourists enthusiastic, like we see in the movie, which will count them as “an adventure in the tropics.” 

4. In the port of Mindelo, the boys jostle to be called, revealing the precariousness of daytime work. In a cafeteria for workers with the familiarity of D. Ilda, a kind of fidj mother to everyone, we immersed ourselves in the warm environment of support for port workers. In Ilda d’Cais, they cook together and there is no shortage of production and consumption tasks, the girls go to sell croquettes and pizza at the port, there is a lot of grog and fun and, at the end of the day, there are man who collect workers in a pick-up vain to bring them home. We see the night shift workers, we watch the nightly carousing in a bar that, during the day, is a clothing store, where nostalgia is sung with more poignancy as the drinking progresses. 


5. Shot of Avenida Marginal: tourists walk along it for leasure, Cape Verdeans working. The accumulation of images creates a parallel view, of a world that interacts, but is mutually unaware of each other. We then begin to discover a reading line of the movie. The two worlds are presented to us in a certain manichaeism, famously assumed by the directors. On one side, the resilience of the islanders and their ability to take advantage of scarce resources. The struggling Cape Verdeans who resist the constraints that harass them, whose difficult lives are mitigated by interpersonal relationships of solidarity and some alienation. Those who have to collaborate in the game of tourism as one of the few industries and jobs that are offered to them. And on the other side, the tourists who stroll there, also alienated in their deterritorialized logic: whether they are on that specific island or anywhere else, they do not learn much about the local culture, maintaining only commercial relations with that place. They vibrate a lot, they even fall in love, or change their lives, but they can always choose.

They depend on each other, they envy each other. 

Extraordinarily strong images, throughout the movie, contribute to this specular game. Inside the boats, machines operated by workers run the tourism machine. A view of the high seas disturbs you with seasickness. Seasickness for those who work means enjoyment for those who travel. A crater is announced in the dismantling of the sand on the slope that has been chopped with sticks to serve as cement. In the interior of the island, the little oasis of vegetable garden and goats, where a family works in an equilibrium economy, with an inteligent management of resources, tailored to the needs. The preciousness of water, the mini tomatoes resistant to diversity, the child who plays and works. 


6. The naïfs and popular paintings in the restaurants of São Vicente, namely in the Hamburgo restaurant, in Calhau, close to Baía das Gatas (another tourist spot on the island) contrast with the Arabian decoration in the resort on the island of Boavista, where tourism it is more massified. We recognize the caricature of resort tourism. We see tourists doing water aerobics, we see them sitting at the pool bar with caipirinhas. Everyone collaborates in the deception: the entertainment show, made by Cape Verdeans for tourists, reproduces an image of Africa with tribal dances, completely out of touch with Cape Verdean culture. The nightclubs invite the tourists to let loose their expressiveness, exposed to a certain ridiculousness in the contrast with the sensuality of the Creoles. 

The service door for Cape Verdeans who work in these foreign enterprises makes us realize that there’s a different world from the everyday life of most citizens. In other words, mass tourism exists and is growing, it brings transformations to the life dynamics of Cape Verdeans, but there is a place for it to happen: The resort, a protective bubble for tourists, a non-place of tourism. 


7. As David MacDougall says, regarding ethnographic movies, no movie will be just a mere portrait of another society, it is a meeting between the director and the society that interested him. In” As Cidades e as Trocas” this encounter is present in a positioning evidenced in the eyes of directors Pedro Pinho and Luísa Homem against the way in which tourism and economies of scale affect the experience. They undo the possibility of a rhythm of life close to the rhythm of nature, of work according to needs, of genuine curiosity for what comes from outside, degenerated and boycotted by self-serving relationships and services. The hypothesis of commodification of the island, as a consequence of the transformation of the physical and human landscape, does not exist without the equally important suggestion of elements that resist all this, fundamental to realizing that not everything will be domesticable. They may just be relationships of interest that coexist with the way of life of the islanders, influencing it by the wave of an increasingly Westernized, but not taken over, culture. 

The film’s approach, which seems to come from the personal experience and degree of involvement of directors Pedro Pinho and Luísa Homem with that context, points to these two scenarios: a place in transformation that allows itself to be captured in the unavoidable network of global capitalism, but in which there are “islands” of resistance. The choice of the montage /edition highlights the aspects of these two forces that act simultaneously. 


8. In some ways it would be more difficult to focus an observation on an island like Sal or Boavista where mass tourism is too embedded in the daily lives of the population. São Vicente has experienced this process more recently and has managed to protect itself better. But it won’t be for long. The film is from 2014 and, ten years later, the countless hotels on the edge of Praia da Laginha almost about to open leave us with the feeling that the days are numbered to enjoy a beach that still has the majority of the local population, an equation that will change a lot soon, and possibly there will be no sand left for the island’s natives, Creoles who practice daily rituals on that beach, bathing, sunbathing, walking, running, socializing. 

Money can do everything and, next thing you know, Cape Verdeans will be, more or less openly, invited to stop going to their beach, as has already happened in so many coastal places that are being usurped and privatized.


9. It is known that the ethics of movies also manifest themselves in aesthetics. Being a risky movie due to its emphasis on visual language (unquestionably beautiful) and, in turn, militant in the absence of words and speech, it is difficult for us to access a greater theoretical complexity of these issues. But we are left thinking: Who profits from this type of tourism? 

The real sharks of tourism and construction of large projects, land speculators, foreign investors, the Cape Verdean partner who will mediate, etc. are not present in the movie. And it should be noted that the tourist can also be as much of a weak link as the Cape Verdean worker. Both adapt and take advantage, opportunistically or without option, of the reality at their disposal. The Central European or Latin tourists who have saved money all year has every right to consume the package available to them at the tourist agency and enjoy the tropical sun on their vacation, even if they collaborate with the devastation of the island’s original dynamics. (The unbearable snobbish speeches about “it used to be good” when only a small bourgeois elite traveled.) The Cape Verdean who works in tourism, although certainly exploited, will also be happy with the fact that he has work, and that there is more money circulating within his range of action, knowing, however, that whoever earns substantially, whoever gets seriously rich, it will never be his own or his people.   


10. As spectators we notice the tone that the movies have, whether the attitude is respectful, compassionate, or cynical, arrogant, or humble (Barbash and Taylor). The relationship between the director and the object of the movie obviously has consequences in the way the material of the movie is transmitted to us. In this sense, “As Cidades e as Trocas” is, obviously, a movie that is more empathetic towards some and more caricatural towards others, and, as mentioned, with a clear positioning. Fortunately. Unpositioned movies are rare and usually present a lukewarm soup where you can’t distinguish the ingredients. 

What we miss in this movie, to risk an even bolder stance, is the involvement of the directors themselves in a game of greater forces and self-questioning. What kind of tourists will we be? We, white Portuguese, young at the time, who lived more closely with the Cape Verdeans, who already had work projects, love and life changing on those islands? How do we collaborate or resist these processes in the places we come from? How do we also feed this predatory machine, even in the cultural environment and specifically in cinema? And why do we use this place as a laboratory for a process on a larger scale?

The capitalist game is not yet, in this movie, sufficiently unmasked in the loose and beautiful images that document something in transformation, in the process of loss or even extinction. We need more elements to disassemble the processes behind this loss beyond realizing it. 

However, we can also find ourselves in a place where we speculate about all of this. 


11. Resuming the ideas from Calvino’s book, “As Cidades Invisíveis” (1972). The circulation in the city, urban mobility and mutability that make it a mutant being, even if made of stone, the agents in urban space and the confrontation between routine and change, between a sustainable and large-scale economy are inscribed in the movie. 

It is a complex territory in dispute. 

The final shot of the camels crossing the desert seems like an omen: the world of remnants of happiness from Marco Polo’s journey that Calvino spoke of will be on the verge of disappearing. In what part of the desert do we find ourselves? 

Translation:  Mariana Borges

by Marta Lança
Afroscreen | 8 May 2024 | As Cidades e as Trocas, As Cidades Invisíveis, Cape Verde, cinema, Mindelo, tourism