“Xime,” the third film to be made in Guinea-Bissau, interests not only for its rare locale but for a fresh approach to historical storytelling by debuting helmer Sana Na N’Hada. Tale of a village’s reaction to its Portuguese oppressors should rank high on this year’s list of African films, though market remains small.
Film is set in Guinea in 1963, when Portuguese colonialists ruled the country in western Africa through indolent administrators like Cunha (Juan Carlos Tajes) , ferocious green berets and their native henchmen. The village where Bedan (Jose Tamba) lives with his father, Iala (Aful Macka), is a lush haven of peace. A Catholic priest, Father Vittorio (Daniel Smith), teaches the Christian way of life, while the village elders instruct rambunctious youth like Bedan to follow the path of non-violence.
Not everyone, however, is equally submissive. In a stylish opening scene, Bedan’s older brother Raul (Justino Neto) appears as part of a band of revolutionaries in the capital. He announces he will return to his native region of Xime to foment unrest against the European rulers.
In Xime, Raul’s mission is discovered, and the authorities are determined to capture him. The manhunt theme gives the film a good forward momentum, while much of the running time is filled with standard African village intrigue: kids at school, boy chasing girl, father against son, conferences of elders.
Finally, script by Na N’Hada and Joop van Wijk makes a sketchy attempt at portraying the Portuguese but, unaided by the stilted actors, they never emerge from gray stereotyping and caricature.
A curious tradition that needs a little more explaining in the film is the habit of dressing young men on the brink of adulthood in women’s clothing. The transformation of Bedan and his pals from swaggering, sassy teens to meek, feminine “transvestites” is visually startling and rather comical. Apparently this initiation rite is aimed at making them awareit’s time to put aside violence and think like adults.
In a strong finale that pulls together the story’s threads, the little-seen Raul stumbles into the midst of a marriage ceremony, fatally wounded. As he dies in front of Bedan, who’s still dressed as a woman, the younger man realizes “this time, it’s war!”
It’s clear that the village will put aside its non-violent traditions and fight against its foreign masters. (Guinea-Bissau overthrew Portuguese rule in 1973.)
Film’s intentions are ambitious, and its black characters are interestingly three-dimensional. Tamba is amusing and alarming as the youth who sets his eyes on his father’s fiancee and has no respect for authority. The girl, Etelvina Gomes, is a beauty who surprises by preferring Bedan’s father to the callow youth.
The rich, smoky lensing by Melle Van Essen is unusually colorful, capturing the beauty of African faces along with the lushness and detail of the landscape. Score by Patricio Wong and Malam Mane’ gives film a pleasant local rhythm.