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San Sebastian New Talent: Gorka Gamarra

Basque documentary filmmaker talks about his latest portrait of Africa: "Lantanda"

Living in Rwanda, Basque-born Gorka Gamarra broke through with docu-feature “Umurage,” bearing witness to its reconciliation process after the Tutsi massacres in 1994.  He has now turned his political sensibility to Guinea Bissau, its music, beginning with 60s group Cobiana Jazz, and language as an instrument of and riposte to oppression. Variety caught up with him at San Sebastian…

 Why the interest of music?

The documentary film “Lantanda” uses music as a narrative element, music being one of the major cultural expressions of Guinea Bissau. Through music, we take a historical look back, from the 60s to now, with the Cobiana Jazz group, the first group in the country to start singing in creole, about themes that people could understand and easily relate to,  things they were living and experiencing them. After that we see the evolution of the music, as well as the concerns of the society, through other themes and issues, and, underpinning all that, the whole question of creole: What language is it? What does that language mean? What relationship do the native people of Guinea Bissau have with it? Why is it not an official language? That’s the role of music in the documentary; it’s there throughout the film, and serves to give an historical overview of Guinea Bissau, and demonstrate the importance of “creole” to the people of that country.

So language is an expression of resistance?

There are two answers to that question. The first part must focus on the years of the fight for independence and the colonial war. During those years, creole was used as a form of cultural resistance, because for the people it was a cultural revolution. Using creole was a form of unity, and therefore constituted as well opposition to the establishment, which was clearly linked to the Portuguese language. So it also reflected the division in the society. The second part of the answer has to do with after Independence, and what creole means, and why creole isn’t an official language. Which takes us into the consequences of colonialism and post-independence Africa. And in that post-independence Africa, what we clearly see, through “creole,” leads us to ask why that is so, why it has not become an official language, which leads further into the problems facing so many African countries today.

So you’re exploring the status of a language, which seems to me a majority, not a minority, language, in the context you evoke, but which isn’t officially recognised as such. And you’re also talking about historical change, or lack of historical change…

Yes. The important thing is that through the music and the singers and people involved in the music we see in the film, we are given an objective view of the issues dealt with in the film. Those issues allow us to see the evolution of Guinea Bissau and its society; from the 50s when that society was already calling for its right to be, and express itself in its own language, “creole,” through those very first songs of those years, throughout the 60s and 70s, decades which focus on the colonial war and what it meant. There’s a great deal of ignorance, thanks to the dearth of research on these questions; right through to today, with a look at the concerns of the youth. We see how things have changed. Today, for instance, a paramount theme is “peace,” because it’s a country that’s suffered lots of military coups since independence. They also talk about the future of the youth. So we can clearly see how Guinea Bissau has evolved over the last 50 years. And that, I think, helped us to structure the film, narrate it as we do. As a narrative element, that was indeed something key.

Instead of just a voiceover narrative…

And there’s another feature: when you think of the music of Guinea Bissau, until you actually get to know it, in any level of depth, a bit, you don’t associate…it’s perhaps different from what you were initially expecting…

“Creole” is a language that uses lots of metaphors. So the music and songs are rendered with metaphors, so it’s something that’s very close to poetry. For me, for example, Cobeiana Jazz, Jose Carlos Suarch, Aliu Bari, all of whom appear in the film – their songs are poems. And those poems allow you to appreciate what was the social reality of people in a given period. And the new songs appearing on the scene these days are also again invested with that poetry, and mirror the social reality of today.

People are sure to ask you how come a Spanish filmmaker – Spain’s film industry has always talked a lot about Spain – what’s a Spanish film director doing making two documentaries that portray historical changes in African countries? 

First of all, circumstance. I lived seven years in Africa, which brought me very close to the reality of Africa, in one way or another. Then, there’s a great deal of injustice with regard to the image that’s normally presented of Africa, the African, and his problems. My documentaries, I think, just attempt to show and express other realities, which are there, which the western world doesn’t know.

By the same token, a Basque filmmaker has as much right as any other filmmaker to talk about issues in Africa.

I think that when you make a film, or do any work, there always are different sources and roots. So in this case, there’s obviously a very important root, which is the Basque root, which no doubt gives you greater knowledge and a greater degree of sensitivity to certain questions. For example, in the documentary on Rwanda, the whole question of living together, reconciliation between victims and victors. So yes, I do think there’s definitely a strong influence, brought by the fact of being Basque, with regard to a problem that was very much in the air at that time, numerous examples of which were floating around. With “Lantanda,” there’s also a likely influence. But that relationship with self and being, is something I associate not only to the Basque Country. I also associate it with Rwanda, Burundi. What do we know about Burundi? What do we know about Uganda? What do we know about Chad? Congo? Sudan? I also associate it with all those countries and peoples I see on the BBC news, or read in Le Monde. I see what’s being said about them and I see other realities that give cause for hope. I think that reality has to be conveyed because it’s another reality as well.

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