« Reworking images as counterpart to today’s landscape » – Interview with Catarina Simão, part #1
First installment of an interview in two parts, we set out to discuss with artist and researcher Catarina Simão (born in Lisbon in 1972), whose work has consisted, for years now, in a thorough investigation of Mozambique Independence process and its anti-colonial resistance through an active and sensitive engagement with its archives. As historians, we are particularly interested in the ways she works with them, interrogates their fabric and foregrounds their very materiality, thus complicating a complex matrix of remembering and forgetting of those central years. This first part revolves around her films Djambo (2017, co-directed with Chico Carneiro) and Effects of Wording (2014).
The film Effects of Wording is now online thanks to the festival IDEIAS NO ESCURO. Watch it here.
#1 – The film Djambo (1), like your other works, is a breach opened on the history of the liberation struggle in Mozambique, through a fine work on the archival traces of this period and the guidance of the witnesses who can enlighten them. It focuses on the figure of Carlos Jambo, a freedom fighter of the luta and a photographer who guides you/us in the exploration of this fundamental stage of the history of Mozambique. How did this film come about?
This film happened because of an earlier research project. I was working for a commission from the Moscow Garage Museum that came about on invitation of curators Koyo Kouoh and Rasha Salti. The project sought the historical links between the production of African and Arab Cinema and Soviet Cultural diplomacy and solidarity. Unlike other countries on the continent, such as Algeria or Mali, Mozambique had no notable references of its cinematography linked to the Moscow Film School (VGIK); this school welcomed foreign students as part of the internationalist action and trained directors coming from the new countries emerging from the anti-colonial struggles. Solidarity with Mozambique took place mainly in the preparation of technical foundations and laboratory training during the Independence period; there were also other significant connections, such as awards for Mozambican films at major Soviet festivals and the exchange of shows and distribution of films. Also, during the Armed Struggle (1964-1974), teams of Soviet directors were sent to Dar es Salaam; they were said to have provided photography and film training to freedom fighter groups of the African Liberation Movements that had established their headquarters in Tanzania at the time. This was the line I wanted to develop, since FRELIMO, the Mozambique Liberation Front, had established its political and military headquarters in Tanzania from 1962 onwards. In this context, photography and cinema had a role to play, especially in military mobilization, counterpropaganda and war diplomacy. I had already gathered an important collection of films, photographs and other unpublished materials for the exhibition in Moscow – never to be realized – which I then used in the documentary. Before that, in Maputo, in the year 2015, I looked for Carlos Jambo, as his name was related to the restricted group of former combatants who had been trained with video and photography during the Armed Struggle. When I got in touch with him by phone and we spoke for the first time, I immediately realised that it was important to record our interview. This would take place a few days later in a suburb of the capital, where Jambo still runs his restaurant and its « occasional » accommodation business. I then decided to invite a friend of mine, who is a filmmaker, Chico Carneiro – who would end up making the documentary with me – to make the video record of the meeting. As expected, I was thrilled by the immense possibilities of research that opened up with his testimony, but the life story of Carlos Jambo and his commitment to tell it was what moved me most. At the end of the meeting, Carlos Jambo looking at me said: « before I die, I wanted to make a film revisiting the old Liberated Zones, where I photographed. I would like to meet my comrades in arms again and tell that story [based on the photos I took]. I remembered many times this catalytic moment for the making of the film, which would be premiered in 2016 on the main TV channel of Mozambique. Both Chico Carneiro and I would end up using this episode as a prelude to debates about the film when we present it in Mozambique or abroad. For us, who made the documentary thinking of a popular Mozambican audience, it was always important to tell that it had resulted from an original idea of its protagonist. This point was fundamental from the beginning. The road-movie itinerary was designed by Jambo and most of the interviews (especially the high ranks of the Party) could only enter the film thanks to Jambo personal mediation, which is also why we divided by three the amount of the fees for directing. In due course, the content of the documentary would explain the drama that prevented Carlos Jambo from continuing with his work as an image maker (2). We knew this film could change his life.
The preparation for the film required entering the photographic archive of FRELIMO. I obtained authorization to select a series of original photographs that had been taken with great probability by Jambo during the Liberation Struggle, and others taken by other fighter-photographers from the 1st and 2nd groups of trainees. I reproduced a good series of magnificent black and white photos. They accompanied us on our trip to Northern Mozambique where we filmed. The intention was that they serve as a counterpart to today’s landscape and the reality that we were finding and filming. This counterpart, in its distance or paradox, would give us clues not only to the Official History of the Struggle but also to deconstruct it, giving visibility to the disenchantment and the colossal contradictions that this history translates into nowadays. The memory of the patriotic past suited the body and voice of a humble hero. But it was the comic tone of the film that made it so popular in Mozambique. I believe the film found in laughter the forms of the unspoken, the unusual subterfuge of fear, and the stories yet to be revealed.
#2 – In the film, the major role assigned to photography in the liberation struggle is repeatedly raised: it serves as evidence to show that the liberated areas do exist, it also serves to galvanize and motivate new recruits in the struggle. Where are these archives now, and more specifically the ones you have been working on?
The film starts with the handheld camera, following the entrance of Carlos Jambo into the Historical Archives of Mozambique. It is a magnificent building in downtown Maputo. It is there that an important part of the photographic collection of the Armed Struggle was located at the time of filming, in 2015. Since it began to be formed in the FRELIMO offices in Dar es Salaam, this collection of photographs had several lives before it reached the historical archive of Maputo. It was inconclusive and showing signs of deterioration and had systematic flaws in identification and cataloguing. In small episodes in the film, as a matter of fact, we tell about its fragmented existence. Sometimes, the production of a film that enters the archives, causes it to proclaim itself a voluntary cataloguing agent of the materials, and this was the case. The film was later used as a primary source by national archive staff. I did research in two more archives in Maputo: in the Museum archive dedicated to former President Samora Machel, downtown, and in the Documentation and Photographic Training Centre (CDFF). This is an important centre linked to the name of the Mozambican photographer Ricardo Rangel. I then did research elsewhere in the world, notably in Lisbon, at CIDAC (Amilcar Cabral Documentation Centre) in Stockholm, at Arbetarrörelsens arkiv in Flemingsberg (Swedish Labour Movement’s Archives) and at the Library of African History at Uppsala University. If the mapping of the archives I visited reflects the geopolitics associated with the period of African independence, it is also the fruit of the opportunities I had at the time of the film’s production, such as the IASPIS (Sweden) residency grant.
#3 – Djambo is also a film about the passing of memory: one of Jambo’s former comrades notes for instance that the fighters who can actually identify who is in the pictures continuously disappear. I also think about Carlos Jambo’s bitter astonishment when he discovers that the Samora Machel memorial in South Africa has become a rubbish dump…
This is a theme that runs through the film, yes, it is sure. There is a strong symbolism that is built by bringing to the film the degradation of materials that witness the past. In the foreground, this degradation accompanies the discouragement of the protagonist and makes up the denouncing gaze of the film, targeting the responsible institutions. But its use is intentionally metaphorical: it is the country that degrades physically and morally. It is the collapse of human values. That is the background which is too overwhelming, and which corrupts everything around and for which there seems to be no chance of redemption. I remember that in the sequence referred to in your question, we were at the border of South Africa with Mozambique. The Nkomati Agreement was signed there, which had disastrous consequences for Mozambique and was a major step backwards in the anti-apartheid struggle. We had a plan in which you could see a young man eating directly from the garbage dump erected in place of a historical landmark. And we did not use this image precisely to make of this sequence a symbolic comment, with political resonances directed at the context…
#4 – In the film, there is also a short sequence in which a sculptor shows the link between Makonde sculpture and the liberation struggle: it is just sketched there but you are currently working on it. Can you tell us more about it?
Yes, in the film we see testimonies of former combatants talking about their voluntary and committed contribution to the values of Independence. These unitary contributions always have a similar frequency regardless of the work that is carried out: on the front line of the guerrilla, as a political commissioner, in the production of photography, in literacy or in the production of sculpture. But, taking up directly the question you ask me: Matias Ntundo, a renowned Makonde sculptor and woodcutter, tells in the film that he produced sculpture to be sold by FRELIMO during the war. The fact that the proceeds from the sale of the sculpture serve to finance the Struggle is problematized by Ntundo himself, who differentiates it from agricultural production, which served to meet the basic needs of the people. It was important in the film to reproduce this mantra of the ideological line of the liberation movement because it also pervades the organization of the photographic archive and conducts the subjects treated in the photographs. It was this vector that helped me to visually identify the photographs that had been offered by foreign photographers to FRELIMO, as they differed interestingly from the thematic focuses pre-established by the Movement. It was also thanks to these images that I was able to understand the path the Makonde sculptures were taking outside the context of the war of liberation and the construction of nationalism, gaining divergent narratives in the circuit of European markets and collectors. In January 2020, I finally worked on materializing this line of research. I made an exhibition in Lisbon based solely on photographic representation. The exhibition proposed to critically show the « European history » of the Makonde sculpture against the « African history » of the same objects, which is the one told by the ethnographic museum. This tension between object and representation finds pernicious paradoxes – and even more so in the light of the new policies of restitution.
#5 – The materiality of the archives and the gestures of the work on these take up an major place in your films, often occupying the whole space of the screen. I think for instance of the microfilm light table in Effects of Wording that scrolls by, stops in jerks and stares at specific documents for long minutes; or the reading of the legends on the back of the images that are manipulated, as well as the books whose pages are seen on the screen turned by your hands… Things that, as historians, we are both familiar with and very sensitive to. What does this mean in the making of your films?
Information access systems are the main protagonists of Effects of Wording. What can be strange to say when this film-essay clearly focuses on the language policies of the war for Independence period. Whenever I was asked to speak or write about its editing or the movement of the camera I chose, I explained that what interested me was the « involuntary memory of the archives ». This expression allowed me to distinguish two aspects that influence each other (and that are perceptible by historians), but where only one of them is assumed by the historiographic method. The document that the archive keeps, the revelation of its contents, is the most frequent archiving experience. The other is the access form, and how this form is a strong inducer of the interpretation of the document. Returning to the film: it begins with an animation that simulates the viewing of microfilm. We are in a pre-digital technological environment, but with a dynamic that is fascinating for remembering the cinema materiality and even with an entry in hypertext by investing in multiple navigation possibilities. Forward, right, chronological, fast, fragmented, and so on. There is a sound associated with the navigation mechanism that reminds the environment of the video game. In that case we are in one of the best-equipped American archives, the Rockefeller Archive, near New York. Secondly, In Amsterdam, I filmed the Antiapartheid Movements Archive, produced by several Dutch solidarity movements in the 1960s and 1970s. It is an open, precious archive, organized by a former volunteer activist. We see that there is a lack of references, and the scarce financial investment in the organization of the portfolios explains the weight that these solidarity movements (did not) have in the policy of the European governments today. By allowing handcrafting, direct touch on the black and white photographs, materiality leaves room for quick compositions, the table becomes an assembly field that is rudimentary and very affective. The third system I worked on in the film Effects of Wording is the literacy manual that was used in the old Liberated Zones. One of them, in particular, is influenced by the method developed by the Brazilian pedagogue, Paulo Freire. His method of literacy is known for enhancing awareness about the world and paving the way for the empowerment of the oppressed population. Freire attaches great importance to the first word from which the spelling is learned because it is defined by the community of alphabetizers and always varies from community to community. The word chosen is the index, the portal, to the reality loaded with resistance of this same community. For the film, I was interested in making this decoding: the literacy manual reflected that war and understanding it as an entry system to a reality that one wants to discover does not differ from the way executed by an historian consulting a file system organized by an institution.
All images above are stills from the film Djambo, except the last one which is from Effects of Wording.
Born in 1972 in Lisbon, Portugal, Catarina Simão is an artist and researcher who lives and works between Maputo and Lisbon. Her practice is built upon long-term research projects that entail collaborative partnerships and different forms of presentation to the public. Since 2009 that Simão works with the notion of archive, engaging especially with the history of Mozambique, its independence process and anti-colonial resistance. Simão critically approaches the counterpart of record’s custody, their mutable meanings and their ability to embody a deferred knowledge. She mainly works with film and video set in installation, but also uses other figurative elements like photography, textbooks, drawing and sound.
(1) Produced by TV channel of Mozambique. DJAMBO documentary is an awarded project by DOCTV-CPLP 2016
(2) Carlos Jambo happened to be on the plane whose crash killed Samora Machel in 1986. He did survive the accident and fully recovered from it, but was never allowed to regain his previous position as an image-maker.