It takes a film as self-aware, warm and open-hearted as “Djon África” to assuage the vexing concerns that often arise with the new generation of docu-fiction hybrids. Where many directors almost perversely toy with viewers’ inability to distinguish between truth and make-believe, Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra color those gray spaces of uncertainty with real people whose impact on the fictional narrative adds depth and grace to their story of a young Portuguese man of African descent journeying to Cape Verde in search of his father. Keenly aware of how landscape, language and local customs lure us into feeling part of a culture not entirely our own, the film extends a loving hand to the confused lead character as well as to a nation the Portuguese directors know they ultimately can never approach from the inside.
Thanks in part to a slew of festival prizes for their short and medium-length output, Reis and Miller Guerra should be able to attract attention with this, their first fiction feature, though it’s the film’s distinct merits, unconnected to thematic similarities with some of their other works, that will result in much deserved bookings. And who knows, it may even launch a wave of home chefs researching recipes for cachupa, the national dish of Cape Verde.
Miguel Moreira, aka Tibars, aka Djon África, plays a version of himself: a Portuguese-born musician of Cape Verde descent who identifies as African even though he’s never been to the continent. One day after a person on the street tells him he looks exactly like a man she knew in Cape Verde, he asks his grandmother for more information about his parentage. Apparently his father was a real charmer, a con artist with a prison record, but all granny knows is that her son-in-law had a sister in the country’s capital, Praia. With no real plan, Miguel buys a one-way ticket to the island nation.
The directors indulge in a wonderful scene on board the plane, underlying the level of fantasy that’s guiding Miguel’s trip: Following a good-natured discussion with a fellow passenger about whether he can claim to be Cape Verdean when he was born in Portugal, he imagines the plane full of beautiful young women who dance in the aisles and look flirtatiously at him. It’s a terrific way of encapsulating Miguel’s rose-tinted understanding of what he’s going to find once he lands, and even if his experience doesn’t turn out to be quite so affirming, neither does it come as a betrayal.
In Praia he learns his aunt has been dead a year, but she had relations in Tarrafal who might lead him to his father. The journey there is unsuccessful, not least because Cape Verde has two Tarrafals, and he’s in the wrong one. Miguel’s island hopping allows Reis and Miller Guerra to do more than showcase the region’s natural beauty — the distinctive mountains and coastal areas have a primal lure to him that seems a part of his genetic makeup, yet he’s still a foreigner seeing Cape Verde with his own eyes for the first time. The rasta locks he feels make him so proudly African have nothing to do with his parents’ homeland, instantly betraying (along with his accent) his European background, and yet in Portugal he’s also treated as a foreigner. This liminal position, so common in today’s migrant world, has rarely been conveyed so effectively on screen, with such subtlety and gentle understanding.
Moreira played variations on this character in two of the directors’ previous works (“Li Ké Terra” and “Fora de Vida”), so although he’s a non-professional actor, he’s at ease in a role that basically riffs on parts of his history as an in-betweener. The adeptly observational camerawork by Vasco Viana is attractive without exoticizing or turning the film into a travel advertisement, though surely for many an armchair traveler unfamiliar with Cape Verde’s charms, the landscape together with the justly famous local music will induce a yearning.