By Martin Mhando
Fogata is a short film by Joao Ribeiro adapted from the short story A Fogueira by the renowned Mozambican writer Mia Couto. This riddle brings to heart the driving tension of cinema (of character, setting, plot and drama) closer to the self consciousness of the story telling session. This form of cultural expression embedded in oral tradition has often formed the genesis of film makers of social conscience like Sembene who profess of their teaching and historian roles linking them to the historical functions of the griot. Nevertheless with Sembene the griot’s storytelling is more of a function than a structure although at times we see the structure of Sembene’s film like Borom Sarret also subscribe to the stylist device of oral storytelling methods.
In Fogata the oral tradition of ‘mindless fantasy’ verging on the mythological is applied to a possible Westerner’s incredulity. The lives portrayed are realistic, appearing plausible and yet they have a magical charm and straddle between being fantasies and popular realistic narratives. The story in Mama Tumaini (Tanzania) has that quality just as we find the same in the atmosphere in Marracuene(Mozambique), Nellisita ( Angola) or Quartier Mozart (Cameroon).
As Patrick Chabal says of Mia Couto’s stories, ‘they are rooted in everyday life but they tap the Mozambican African collective conscious’. The aural reality is what interests us most here. The African short story form while closely resembling poetry in its literary execution needs to subordinate its visual assets and turn its attention to its basic and essential orality, in order to succeed. Fogata succeeds in no small measure.
In the story an old man states in no uncertain terms his desire to prepare a grave for his wife whom he loves and wishes to serve to the last day. This is in fear of the time when he might not be strong enough to do so. As the story progresses the old man falls ill and while remaining totally immersed in his duty he is immediately made to be seen through the driving ambition of his folly. He is obviously older and more frail than the wife, hence our disorientation as to his arrogance to longer life.
The arrogance of the situation in which love and no other reason is given for the decision prepares us for a questioning of love, selflessness, individuality and eventually fate. The subtext however speaks to us of an oral dimension with specific signs and symbolism. Compare this to the narrative style of Mohammed Camara’s Denko(1992) in which the narrative goal is stated at the very beginning of the story in almost a crude manner and the story develops in almost the same structure as happens in Fogata.
Based on Mia Couto’s enduring theme of searching for the self the story works to imagine rather than retrieve any secure identity. This is a vision of the difficulties of change, of managing change, of alluding to the integrating power of custom, tradition, history and events to geo-cultural landmarks. In that way we see the essential link with Rui Guerra’s Mueda: Memoria de um massacre where history and imagination converge in a filmic language. The two films form a clear visionary pattern in that they both discuss communities that have undergone traumatic social experiences.
In the case of Mueda the experience of the massacre and its commemoration identifies the redemption of the cultural energies of creativity which had been submerged with defeat, colonialism and a cultural complexity. In Fogata the tension of single mindedness, the hubris of uncompromising militancy that has characterised the period of Mozambican post independence political life comes to the fore.
In Fogata are expressed social concerns about ordinary lives as witnesses to a debilitating conditions. This riddle again returns one to the visionary base of oral histories and symbolism. The fantastic in Mia Couto’s stories is also a response to what he perceives as the death of the imagination brought about by the violence of life in contemporary Mozambique.
So director Joao Ribeiro returns from his film training in Cuba and sees the country he so loves and prepares for a way to speak of its greatness when he would have to explain to the future Mozambicans how they got into that state of affairs. Just as the old man, for the director, this pretend story affords a means of accepting reality and a search for the meaning beyond the civil war. He reconstitutes memory through a consciousness not of country but of belonging, fear and desire.