[…] How shooting films was systematically integrated into the war, how the camera can be used as a weapon, how the obscurity of the footage accompanied the historical events leading up to the revolutionary period, how the restoration of the filmic archive today becomes a militant gesture, how the historical truth – through its filmic recording – is always a (re-)constructed truth, how the reception of films seems to inspire very different interpretations: all of this is «Spell Reel», a film on cinema and on the function and power of film itself.
In the latest film by Filipa César, Spell Reel, we are taken to the former Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau in search of a reconstruction of the revolutionary period of the War of Independence (1963-1974) and its contemporary legacy. As is always the case with César’s multi-layered projects, historical interest is intertwined with geography and the parallelism between Portugal and Africa is constantly present even if, in this case, Germany seems to play a greater role in the film. Spell Reel is a postcolonial study that really shows the connections between the old colonial and neo-colonialist strategies of exploitation. The reconstruction and representation of the political history of a people are supplemented with the discovery of filmic footage of the War of Independence, which is now – thanks to the project of Spell Reel itself – distributed again in Guinea Bissau in order to inform the people of their history. In this way, the documentary project is also a performative project that takes place through screenings and discussions.
Many voices take part to this reconstruction, so a many-sided self-representative narrative is formed. We cannot help but praise the highly complex editing work, where the social, performative, political, geographical, and historical create a counterpoint of readings. Such complexity is a good counterbalance to a naïve militant rhetoric that pervades the discourse of the activists. If the charismatic words of Amilcar Cabral and the deeds of the PAIGC guerrilla come back in the form of an often nostalgic celebration, the little information we get on the actual political situation – in which the spiritual heritage of the War of Independence is overworked and bastardized – reminds us that this is not (only) a political documentary. The focus and the originality of Filipa César’s study is the role of film and cinema during the war and today. How shooting films was systematically integrated into the war, how the camera can be used as a weapon, how the obscurity of the footage accompanied the historical events leading up to the revolutionary period, how the restoration of the filmic archive today becomes a militant gesture, how the historical truth – through its filmic recording – is always a (re-)constructed truth, how the reception of films seems to inspire very different interpretations: all of this is Spell Reel, a film on cinema and on the function and power of film itself.
Spell Reel also proves to us to what extent cinema is a collective enterprise. Filipa César explicitly claims collective authorship of the film. The editing she realised with Janina Herhoffer never succombs to the temptation of reducing the different voices to one main discourse. The multifaceted mosaic that results can sometimes appear difficult to follow, but this is a small price to pay for the complex picture of a filmic transmission that has been, and still is, intrinsecally plural.
To wrap up, we want to also enthusiastically mention the other film by Filipa César that was screened in the Art Basel Film Programme, Mined Soil (2014), a little jewel. Its 32 minutes provide us with all of the elements that are lacking in Spell Reel: a strong singular authorship, a perfect balance between the geographical and historical, between the history of Portugal and its colonialist past, between a personal existential stance and one that is objective and analytical. Starting from the question of the soil and its study – a scientific, archeological, strategic study – the spatial dimension quickly becomes temporal, historical and political, also thanks to the ever-intriguing editing of her films.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: June 26, 2017