Not many filmgoers may be aware of Portuguese director Teresa Prata’s Sleepwalking Land. A film that took Ms Prata some 7 years to complete, it is yet to be extensively screened beyond the international film festival circuit. The movie is evidently Ms Prata’s labor of love after she spotted a goldmine in Mia Couto’s Portuguese novel Sleepwalking Land published in 1992. The novel is now widely recognized as a major literary work from and on Africa in recent years. Extracts (translated into English) that I read indicate a remarkable, powerful literary work, falling within the realm of magical realism. It was indeed a work screaming to be captured on celluloid with the help of special effects and convincing local acting talent. The young lady grabbed the opportunity to shoot the film in Mozambique and do the special effects in Portugal. Today, her interesting movie adaptation is helping publicize Mia Couto’s writing even further and is bringing global attention to both the Mozambican and the Portuguese cinema.
Sleepwalking Land is one of the most interesting and realistic films on Africa. In the past two months, the film has won the international FIPRESCI award for the best film in competition at the recent Kerala film festival, and an award for best director at the lesser known Pune film festival.
African films, in my view fall into three distinct categories. The first category includes films made on African subjects by native Africans, as exemplified by the cinema of the late Ousmane Sembene. The second category includes movies made by African Arabs on subjects relating to north Africa and the Horn of Africa (e.g., films of Youssef Chahine in Egypt, Mohamad Asli and Souhel Ben Barka in Morocco, Mahamet Saleh Haroun in Chad). The third category is African cinema made by expatriates with a short exposure to Africa, blending external sensibilities with those of native Africans (e.g., Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala). Teresa Prata’s Sleepwalking Land will fall within that final category.
The book Sleepwalking Land and the film based on the novel are both set during the 15-year civil war that crippled Mozambique. Mia Cuoto has a gifted philosophical turn of phrase to describe the catastrophe of the war: “what’s already burnt can’t burn again.” The film (as in the book) looks back wistfully at the tragedy of the unrest through the eyes of a dreaming orphan boy and provides a glimmer of hope for the survivors of civil anarchy to cope with what is left to build anew. While Mia Cuoto and Teresa Prata focus on the social and economic plight of Mozambique, their respective works can equally mirror the problems of the continent.
The film follows a young orphaned Mozambican boy Muidinga (an endearing performance by an acting novice, Nick Lauro Teresa), who can fortunately read as he had once attended school and is even familiar with Melville’s Moby Dick, and his unrelated, illiterate guardian, a wise old man called Tuahir (played by non-professional actor Aladino Jasse), tossed accidentally together by the civil war. The film and the book trace their common will to survive the difficult days. The young boy might have read, or rather heard, the story of Moby Dick, but the name is indelible in his memory. Director Teresa Prata, who adapted the story for cinema, therefore takes creative license, and allows the young boy to call his pet goat “Mody (sic) Dick.” (When I queried the director on this detail, she stated that she was responsible for this change and that it was not part of Couto’s book.)
The film and book have two parallel plots. The young boy and the old man, on the run in the bushes from marauding, gun-toting factions of the civil war, come across a charred bus with burnt corpses and their possessions that escaped the fire. Among the possessions of the dead passengers are notebooks that describe a story of a woman named Farida, a squatter on an abandoned ship, waiting for her young son to find her, and a hardworking young man Kindzu, who has fled his burning village that has faced the wrath of the civil war-mongers. In this discovered manuscript, Kindzu meets Farida. Subsequently, Kindzu goes searching for Farida’s lost son.
The young boy narrates the tale to the illiterate old man, after reading the manuscript, and begins to associate Farida as his lost mother. He even imagines the name of the ship she is squatting on is called “Mody (sic) Dick” (again, Ms Prata’s contribution to the story).
A strength common to the book and the film is that the parallel love story of Farida and Kindzu never takes center stage—the backbone remains the dreams of the young boy under the guiding spirit of the wise old man. Between the two, the viewer of the film is introduced to the problems of Mozambique, of Africa, of any developing country. As in a Greek tragedy, you trudge along a path that gives you a notion of travel and progress, only to return to the same spot, literally and metaphorically.
Here is a sample dialog from the film/book:
"But isn't it more dangerous on the road, Tuahir? Isn't it better to hide in the bush?"
"Not at all. Here we can watch the passersby. Don't you see?"
"You always know everything, Tuahir."
"It's no use complaining. You're to blame: isn't it you who wants to find your parents?"
"That's right. But the bandits are the only ones to pass by along the road."
"If the bandits come, we'll act like we're dead. Pretend we died along with the bus."
Pretense and dreams make the film move forward. To aid the young boy on his “journey” to his “loving mother Farida” squatting on “Mody (sic) Dick,” the old man devises the means to reach the sea (Indian Ocean) from the bushes of Mozambique. The old man digs a hole in the ground. Water sprouts and a stream forms. The stream becomes a river and at the end of the river there is the ocean. In the Ocean, the lead characters find the derelict “Mody (sic) Dick” with Farida on it. Obviously, if you demand conventional realism—there is very little that the film can offer. If you accept magical realism as a tool to narrate a realistic socio-political scenario in Africa, both Mia Couto and Teresa Prata have much to offer and delight your senses.
The viewer gets a glimpse Couto’s Mozambique. An elderly Portuguese lady chooses to remain in her house even when her servants have fled. A Gujarati shopkeeper family that opts to return to India, when their shop is ransacked during the war. There are railroads that have no trains to run on them. But among the ruins, Couto and Prata, show a glimmer of hope in the form of an orphan, learning hard lessons of life in the bush. Ms Prata has made a fine effort to extract remarkable performances from non-professional actors and has proven her capability to adapt and direct an interesting work that would be interesting for any person interested in good African cinema. This film may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is certainly a fine example of good African cinema made by a gifted and persevering lady from another continent.
For the intelligent viewer, the writer and the director throw a silent challenge. Spot the real Captain Ahab and spot the real Moby Dick that confronts Africa today and you could enjoy the film even more. The description of a civil-war torn country as a sleepwalking land offers fodder for thought, beyond the usual images of violence, poverty and carnage that adorn the typical African cinema.