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Joburg: Director Licínio Azevedo on His Wartime Drama ‘Train of Salt and Sugar’

JOHANNESBURG — Long before it rumbled onto the screen for its African premiere this week, as part of the first Joburg Film Festival, Licínio Azevedo wondered if his war-time drama, “Train of Salt and Sugar,” would ever leave the station.

Set in northern Mozambique in the 1980s, “Train” is a harrowing account of the extraordinary risks ordinary people were forced to take in order to survive the country’s brutal civil war.

A personal journey roughly 30 years in the making, Azevedo acknowledges the challenges he faced in bringing “Train” to the big screen almost derailed the film.

“This is a movie made with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, which is absolutely essential in a country like Mozambique, where there is no infrastructure” for filmmaking, says Azevedo.

The Brazilian-born helmer had the idea to make a documentary about the railway nearly three decades ago, when passengers risked their lives to travel from northern Mozambique into neighboring Malawi, where they were able to trade the salt their country produced in abundance for precious supplies of sugar. The perilous journey of several hundred miles could take months to complete, as the locomotive chugged inch by inch through miles of menacing bush, facing guerilla attacks and saboteurs while passing abandoned villages bearing the scars of war.

Azevedo began traveling along the rail line himself, interviewing passengers to see how their lives and dreams had been shaped by both the war and the journey. When the funding for his planned doc never materialized, he decided to write a novel instead, focusing on a romance aboard the train between a young nurse and an army lieutenant – what he describes as “a simple story of love and war.”

Published in English as “Train of Salt and Sugar” in 2008, the book was then adapted for the screen by Azevedo and scripter Teresa Pereira, a co-production between Portugal’s Ukbar Filmes, Mozambique’s Ébano Multimédia, France’s Les Films de l’Étranger, Brazil’s Panda Filmes, and avant-garde South African company Urucu Media, with the support of South Africa’s M-Net and its Portuguese channel in Africa, Jango Magic. Pic world premiered this year in front of an audience of more than 5,000 in the Piazza Grande in Locarno, where it won the Independent Italian Critics Award for best film.

“We took a lot of risks,” says Azevedo, whose crew spent seven weeks shooting in the bush aboard more than a dozen rusty train carriages. The helmer spent months lobbying the government for permission to use the state-owned railway for the movie, but as production was set to get underway, Mozambique’s long-simmering tensions began to boil over. Abandoning a hard-fought peace process that had helped the country rise from the ashes of war, the same guerilla fighters who terrorized Mozambique three decades ago began renewed attacks in the north of the country. The film Azevedo spent years hoping to make was suddenly in jeopardy.

With just days to spare before principal photography was about to begin, Azevedo decided to call in favors from the country’s leaders, many of whom he met when they were young soldiers fighting in the very war the film depicts.

Once the government came onboard, it gave surprisingly robust support for the film, not only giving Azevedo access to trains and stations, but supplying many of the real-life soldiers who appear in the movie.

The production, though, faced other challenges. Filming in rural areas still bearing the scars of fighting, Azevedo and his crew worked tirelessly to sensitize local communities to his fictional depiction of the war.

Mozambican thesp Melanie de Vales Rafael, who plays nurse Rosa in the lead role, remembers the real-life experience many of the extras brought to their roles when they were told to scramble at the sound of gunfire.

“They knew exactly where to hide,” she says.

Living under a military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1970s, Azevedo began his career as a journalist, covering a turbulent period in Latin America, even as revolution began to foment in Portugal’s colonies across the Atlantic. While the country’s military rulers banned reporting on the independence movements that would soon give birth to Mozambique and other African nations, Azevedo followed the wire reports that arrived in Brazil over the Telex. By the time he moved to Guinnea-Bissau, where he began teaching journalism in 1976, he already felt an intimate connection with the continent, confessing to a desire to draw closer to his “African brothers.”

The following year he moved to Mozambique, where he was recruited to help establish a National Film Institute by Ruy Guerra, the Mozambican-born helmer who was one of the pioneers of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. It was a remarkable career move for Azevedo, working alongside Guerra, Jean-Luc Godard and Ken Loach to help create a cinematic lingua franca that the Marxist government in Mozambique hoped would become “an instrument to create national unity,” he says.

Azevedo began by writing the scripts used in documentary voiceovers. From there he moved into directing, experimenting with a hybrid style of documentary and fiction that would help him to discover his cinematic voice. In Mozambique he directed a number of award-winning documentaries, while also becoming a driving force behind the small community of filmmakers in his adopted nation.

Growing up in Brazil, Azevedo says he felt a natural affinity for the strands of magical realism that infuse Mozambican storytelling, recalling the works of the great Latin American novelists like Gabriel García Márquez. “Train” is filled with elements of magic and comedy, underscoring the powerful persistence of hope and the imagination, even in times of war.

In Locarno, an audience member asked Azevedo how a commander who appeared to die in battle could suddenly be resurrected later in the movie. “It’s magic,” Azevedo recalls telling him. “There’s no rules in magic.”

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