João Viana, Happiness in a Movie Theatre

From June 27 to 29, 2013, the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE-IUL) will hold the 5th European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 2013). In parallel to the academic panels, there will be a film festival, the ECAScreenings, and a roundtable, The State of the Art: African Contemporary Cinema in Focus. BUALA is a partner of ECAScreenings in the publication of articles  focused on cinema related to Africa. The articles are selected by Pedro Osório Graça. 


It was in Africa he decided to become a filmmaker, it was in Africa  he filmed The Battle of Tabatô, and it was Africa which awarded him a Special Mention at the Berlin Film Festival. João Viana, ten years after his first short film, feels like he’s living “a movie.”

“Marguerite Duras says that either you are a writer at five years old, or you’re not a writer. I saw my first movie when I was seven years old and it was about that time I decided I wanted to make movies…”

A Batalha de TabatôA Batalha de Tabatô

The premature decision taken by director João Viana at the age of seven culminated, a few weeks ago, with the presence of his two last films in the line-up of the Berlin Film Festival – as well as in its awards. His first feature film, The Battle of Tabatô (selected for the parallel Forum section) won a Special Mention by the jury for Best First Feature; his companion short film Tabatô (in the official competition for short films) received the Best Short Film Prize awarded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). This double recognition took the Portuguese director by surprise, live, in front of the cameras, during the ceremony. “When they asked me to attend, suggesting I could have won something, I thought that it could be for the short, not for the feature.”

Two weeks later, during a half-hour conversation with João Viana, back in Lisbon, that surprise, and the warm response both films garnered in Berlin, remains very vivid on his mind. “It seems like I am living a movie,” says the filmmaker at a certain point, after explaining how he feels the awards gave “vitality” to his diptych, as if they were “something else” out of his control.  That’s precisely because, after nearly a decade dedicated to short films (especially The Pool, selected for Venice 2004, and Alfama, shown at Vila do Conde 2010), Viana still doesn’t feel very comfortable in the feature format – even though the prize at Berlinale, and the positive reactions The Battle of Tabatô merited among the international critics, prove exactly the opposite.

In part, this impression comes out of the openly self-taught path followed by the director, who did not enroll in a film school; his education came from the years he spent as technician and assistant director, participating in shoots by Manoel de Oliveira, João César Monteiro or Paulo Rocha (the latter produced his first short film, The Pool) and seeing films – “I am very happy in a movie theatre” – as he says at a certain stage. And, although he defines cinema as “a tree with a lot of roots”, the names of the great silent classics are the ones that first come to his mind: Dreyer, Chaplin, Murnau. “It’s not out of a sort of nostalgia,” he underlines. “The beginning of cinema is brilliant. I am convinced that the brothers Lumière did everything exactly the opposite way people were expecting it to… Instead of harping on the passion of Christ, they decided to film the man in the street; it’s a very radical gesture, an extremely strong one”. Hence his shorts, rooted in strong visual settings– a swimming pool under construction, a train in motion, the Guinean woods -, assert the visual poetry of the world.

Paradoxically, for someone who thinks that cinema “has lost a little bit with the arrival of sound”, the diptych awarded in Berlin, comprised of the short Tabatô and of the feature The Battle of Tabatô, revolve precisely around music. “A young German musician told me about the village of Tabatô,” a sort of “capital” of traditional Guinean music, “and that interested me due to the reversal of the way we regard Africa,” says. “When my parents were in Africa, they used to send their children to study music in Germany; now a German wanted to go to Africa exactly to learn music there. It was a reversal of how we look to the other.”

The battle mentioned in the title of the movie is that between Good and Evil, symbolizing music and silence, Africa and Europe, told through the story of a Guinean musician who, caught in the convulsions of the colonial war, left for Portugal and returns home to the wedding of his daughter with a musician, ending up disturbing the ancestral equilibrium of mandinga mysticism. Maintaining the film entirely centered on Guinean characters became inevitable to Viana during the research trips he did to that African country he had never been to. “Bolama, the former Portuguese capital [of Guinea], was sepulchral, silent, with an enormous sadness. It’s an empty city. In Tabatô, on the contrary, it’s impossible to sleep, there’s music from dusk until dawn, because of the tea that is drunk with a lot of sugar.

That music was recorded by the crew – “we recorded everything and we brought so many hours of sound which we later worked on for many months,” says Viana in order to explain the soundtrack having been composed by the conductor and percussionist Pedro Carneiro based on the recordings done locally. “It was fair that there should be someone Portuguese working on the sound so that there could be a connection with the image,” explaining that he was interested in “an encounter, a confrontation of sensibilities.”

Viana insists he was not really interested in filming from a “foreign” point of view; after all, the director himself was born in Angola and it was in Africa, at the age of seven, that he saw the first film that left a mark on his life, in the Esplanada Impala Cine of Moçâmedes. “It was a film about killer whales, it was called Blue Water, White Death [Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb, 1971], and I remember the theatre being very special, a little bit modernist. It could have been designed by the architect Siza Vieira and it was open on both sides because of the heat.”

That “redemption” of the landscape ended up expressed as well in the production. “I didn’t head [to Guinea-Bissau] with a script or a crew. I took very few people from Portugal, only two or three, and everything was made there.” And what was made went way beyond the expectations of the filmmaker, who started thinking about shooting a simple documentary about Tabatô and returned with four films, with a huge scare in the middle of his trip (the wreck of the ferry in which the crew was travelling; nobody was hurt but all the lighting material were lost). The Battle of Tabatô (80 minutes) and Tabatô (10 minutes) are two sides of the same coin: the short is more of an elliptical fiction, while the feature expands and articulates the short with a more documental look at the Guinean everyday life. Next  will come Music for Tabatô, focused on the creation of the soundtrack, and a documentary – directed by assistant director Paulo Carneiro – about the shooting and the wreck of the ferry, forcing the crew to film only location scenes with natural lighting.

That, however, is in the future; for now, the present is Tabatô. “Many interesting things are happening,” as a result of the good reception garnered in Berlin – but Viana protects himself. “I think all of this makes me very suspicious, because it’s a bit ephemeral, it will be over very soon… It’s good to let things settle down, there was a lot stirred up.  Confessing that he feels a little like a “member of the audience” concerning the exhibition and distribution work – “it’s something else” he doesn’t necessarily dominates – he’s sure of two things. One: it doesn’t make sense to show both movies together in the same commercial show; the other: “I would like to focus on showing the movie in Guinea, as the end of a circle, showing it to the many people who worked on it mostly for free.” There are already people interested in making this happen.

The Battle of Tabatô

And maybe through this João Viana will be able to recover the experience he never forgot in the Impala Cine of Moçâmedes: “The show would start in the evening and the projectionist and the audience would have to wait for nightfall for the film to start…”

Published originally on Público, 6th March 2013


Translation:  Pedro Osório Graça, revised by Jorge Mourinha

by Jorge Mourinha
Afroscreen | 26 June 2013 | Guinea-Bissau, joao viana