Spell Reel (2017), premiered at the Berlinale (Forum), marks the transition of the Portuguese artist Filipa César from short and medium length films and installations to feature film. Based in Berlin for seven years, César’s most recent work is the result of an extensive research project initiated by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, in the context of its Living Archive label. The project, encapsulates in practice the idea that “an archive can only be significant if it refers to the practices of the present”[i], and its approach is trifold: first, the creation of an online database; secondly, the two-year project Living Archive – Archive Work as a Contemporary Artistic and Curatorial Practice; and finally, the networking project Visionary Archive in the context of which Spell Reel was originated. Visionary Archive, defined by the institution as a “collaborative translocal experiment”[ii], aims at examining the different challenges of archival work in five distinct cinematographic contexts, namely, Cairo, Khartoum, Johannesburg, Berlin and Bissau. “What transcultural, curatorial and artistic work with archives and archival research can look like today”[iii] was the question at the core of the project that each of the five thematic projects explored in one way or another.
Filipa César’s involvement with the Visionary Archive was lengthy, as it was part of the artist’s 6-year research project Luta ca caba inda (The Struggle is Not Over Yet). The mission of this latter project was to look for the surviving materials of Guinea-Bissau’s militant cinema amidst the archival holdings of the National Film Institute of Guinea-Bissau (INCA – Instituto Nacional de Cinema e Audiovisual) and to secure them and make them visible and accessible again, through digitization. This corpus of films covers a phase of militant filmmaking in Bissau that documented the period from the struggle for independence (1963-1974) to the socialist period post-decolonization (1974-1980). It is thus in the context of this wider project that From Boé to Berlin – A mobile lab on the film history of Guinea-Bissau, one of the five thematic projects of the Visionary Archive, was developed. From Boé to Berlin – A mobile lab on the film history of Guinea-Bissau is dedicated to making the digitized films of INCA visible again through a variety of different activities such as a mobile cinema, film programs, exhibitions and workshops.
Spell Reel is the unparalleled object, midway between a moving essay, a documentary and a multi-screen installation, that puts all the different elements of the project in relation within the confines of the film screen. It might be best described as a journey where one is parallelly taken through the selective processes of History making and the process of making, or rather uncovering, the film. Filipa César uses the film surface much like a working table where all the elements are exposed and the possible relations between them are laid bare by the very act of researching and delving into the material. Like the tangled offshoots of the mangroves, a prevalent shrub in Bissau that appears recurrently throughout the film in lengthy travelling shots, César threads the different stories of the film according to a plastic logic of possible relations and contaminations that evades any definite and unambiguous finale. Thus, by means of the multiple frames, voices, timelines and textual notations that produce the filmic image, one learns simultaneously about the history of Guinea-Bissau and its struggle for independence, the history of cinema and of filmmaking in Bissau and the contingencies of moving image archiving in the tropics, all intercut with the untold stories of international (cinematographic) relations. Therefore, it can be said that this is a chorus film, made by and for several voices. At moments, the voice of Sana na N’Hada is heard commenting with a more than 40 years decalage the images he filmed back in the 1960s and 1970s; other times, it is the history of cinema itself which is brought to the fore by the reading of extant letters by Chris Marker; in other moments still, it is the history of Guinea-Bissau which is told and discussed by the audiences of the mobile cinema; and, lastly, it is the voice of the director herself which is read in the textual aphorisms that punctuate the film and in the sharp editing work. The film screen then becomes a space of reunion, a sort of assembly, where both the creators and the viewers of the images are given a space to, through the new visibility of the digitized images, collectively discuss and reconsider the past and present of Guinea-Bissau.
Germany / Portugal / France / Guinea-Bissau 2017
Portuguese, Fula, Guinea-Bissau Creole, English, French
96 min · Colour
Premiere February 15, 2017, Berlinale Forum
Producer: Filipa César, Oliver Marboeuf, Maria João Mayer.
Production companies: Filipa César (Berlin, Germany), Spectre Productions (Rennes, France), Filmes do Tejo II (Lissabon, Portugal).
Director: Filipa César.
Screenplay: Sana na N’Hada.
Director of photography: Jenny Lou Ziegel.
Editor: Filipa César.
Sound design: Didio Pestana.
Sound: Nikolas Mühe.
Production design: Olivier Marboeuf.
World sales: Spectre Productions
Text by Sofia Pires
All film stills were taken from the Berlinale website. © Stills from Spell Reel, 2017