The Archaeology of Film: Close-Up on Filipa César's "Spell Reel"

A diligent and painstaking recording of the processes of excavating, restoring and exploring the after-lives of the films of Guinea-Bissau.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Filipa César Spell Reel (2017) is playing October 10 - November 19, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom. 

Spell Reel

People living in the first years of their country’s independence have always known that history isn’t something that comes down to you in books and museums; to them, history is something they work on their knees and get their hands dirty to build brick by brick, frame by frame. Spell Reel, a collaborative film directed by Filipa César, is a document that records the film history of Guinea-Bissau. By doing this, it ends up being an archive of the nation-forming narratives of Guinea-Bissau.

Deviating from the idea of a monolithic, self-sustaining history, the film begins with uncertainty and unfamiliarity that is only partially resolved by an interpreter who punctuates the story with silence and translation. We begin by being twice removed from this history: a stark reminder that we are only audience and this is not a past we can appropriate and govern. 

Spell Reel is a diligent and painstaking recording of the processes of excavating, restoring and exploring the after-lives of the films of Guinea-Bissau that are used to resurrect pride in a history that had remained hidden, rotting away in boxes. It is both a tribute to, and a document of those processes. The film serves a dual function as it becomes both the witness and a component of the narrative exploring the ideas of the nation state, nationality and patriotism. By doing this, in the filmmaker’s own words, the film forms a network of relationships that are formed through films, a “cine-kinship” that blurs the lines of geography. It examines the role of propaganda and assesses the difference it makes depending on who it serves and what truths it tries to propagate. The film complicates the uni-dimensional idea of propaganda cinema that we often dismiss outright; it stresses on the importance of the creation and preservation of a body of cinematic art that disseminates a sense of truth that helps a nation create its own histories. The film does this effectively but without any claims of being unitarily objective—Spell Reel lives with its silences and absences and helps create a history that is marked by its non-linearity and its empty spaces. It leaves room for future narratives to come and fill in these gaps.

What strikes the viewer is the honesty with which Spell Reel negotiates ruin and damage, always certain of mortality and making no pretense of being a work of art that will live forever. Straying from a focus on the present, the film delves into the after-lives of films as they travel through the country and, through them, the after-lives of histories and nations. It is an endeavor to create a tactile history with an ephemeral medium like film. Which is why the film isn't a final finished product but a document that is forever changing forms as it constantly juxtaposes and superimposes archival footage on the present, thereby making the present and its people not just viewers but extensions of the narrative. It documents that moment of rupture where people’s histories are projected on people’s lives for the first time in a form that moves, talks and, therefore, lives.

Spell Reel travels along with Sana N'Hada and his comrades, as they travel from place to place—setting up makeshift screens, screening historic footage from films made during the country's freedom struggle and talking to people about those times. As more and more people watch these old films, they become aware of a past they have been systematically denied. Spell Reel is an important film not just because it talks of lost films recovered from the clutches of ruin, but because it documents the post-resurrection journey of these films as they go about resurrecting another treasure that was almost ruined—the sense of pride of belonging to a country that has seen so much.

The film is like an archaeological intervention into Guinea-Bissau’s history and the world’s film history. It highlights cinema and filmmaking as work, stresses on its labor aspect and constantly brings to the fore images of filmmakers engaging in physical labor. The emergent cinema that is unearthed from the folds of the earth of course remains works of art, but it also emerges as something that is labor intensive, something that demands a sense of responsibility from people partaking of it.  

Through Sana N’Hada’s screenplay and narration, we are constantly acquainted with the nation’s histories through stories related by someone who has lived through it and is recollecting it. It is a collective remembering that we join him in, as we witness the persistence of the cinematic image, as we witness the life of these images long after the passing away of their guardians, their creators. With Spell Reel, César draws out a visual historiography which understands the politics of visibility and concentrates all its energies on making visible the films and the creative processes of the freedom fighters of Guinea-Bissau. It is like the moment of revelation of a guerilla soldier, one understands and values the strategy of hiding, but one who also works towards the moment of exposition when there is no more a need to hide. 

The history that the film tries to build is a history built from memory, from recollecting that memory, through the process of remembering. There is a constant shuffling between layers of memories in order to eke out a kernel around which a history can flesh out. It is an archive of memories—an archive of stories, an archive of anecdotes, an archive that holds Sana N’Hada’s recollections from a book and also his inability to remember the associated dates in the book. It is a history of déjà vu that lives in the shapeless moment between a whole truth and a whole lie; you don't really know if this has happened before, but you definitely know it is happening now. History, then, does not remain something that you read and memorize, but it becomes about knowing that the past existed and paved way for the present that we live. 

Within this idea of history, the concepts of freedom and independence don't remain the mythical invoking of a transient feeling, but instead become very graphic reminders of the violence that was suffered to win this freedom and independence. The idea of nation thereby doesn't just rest on celebrating this achievement but also becomes a stage to collectively remember the past. Spell Reel and what it documents, are not just emotional invocations of that struggle but very physical and sensory engagements with the history of the nation. 

The film, in its archaeological pursuit, is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Amílcar Cabral—the revolutionary who steered Guinea-Bissau’s freedom struggle, and the agricultural engineer. Through its recurrent going back to imageries of earth, the soil and the trees, the film creates a knowledge system that can be seen and immediately related to. It evokes a sense of political empowerment that can only come from seeing for oneself and not being merely taught to see. In creating Spell Reel, its makers move a step closer to attaining the freedom that Cabral envisaged—a freedom attained through knowledge and fearlessness.

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