Filming the Story of Amílcar Cabral’s Revolution

Flora Gomes

Half a century ago, Amílcar Cabral asked a group of young filmmakers from Guinea-Bissau to bring his country’s independence struggle to the big screen. They’re now completing the project as a tribute to one of Africa’s greatest revolutionaries.

Amílcar Cabral in 1971. (Lehtikuva / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Michael Galant

In the early 1970s, the African liberation leader Amílcar Cabral entrusted a group of four young filmmakers from Guinea-Bissau with documenting the country’s war for independence against the fascist regime in Portugal. Cabral’s movement made a vital contribution to the struggle against the Portuguese dictatorship that culminated in the Carnation Revolution fifty years ago today.

Before they could complete the film, however, Cabral was assassinated. Flora Gomes and Sana Na N’Hada are the last two surviving members of the original group, and now both legendary filmmakers in their own right. They are now raising funds this week through Kickstarter to finally finish their documentary and fulfill their promise to the late revolutionary.

Michael Galant of the Progressive International (PI), with the facilitation of writer and researcher Ricci Shryock, spoke to Gomes about this latest project, his experience in the Bissau-Guinean liberation struggle, and the relationship between cinema and revolution. This interview is republished from the Internationalist, the PI’s newsletter.

Michael Galant

Let’s start at the beginning. Your path to filmmaking speaks a great deal to the importance that revolutionary movements placed on cinema at the time. How did you become a filmmaker?

Flora Gomes

I was a high school student at the Pilot School [a school founded by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) for educating party members and their children]. Amílcar Cabral sent us to Cuba with a group of young people to study. Everyone had their own destiny, but it was Cabral who said: “You are going to do medicine.” “You are going to do agronomy.”

And among us, he chose four people who were going to make films. He told us clearly: “You are going to study film. You’re going to study cinema here in Cuba so that you can record the proclamation of independence. I want it to be a child of my country to record this historic act, the proclamation of the state.” That was 1967 that I went to Cuba. I returned in 1972. [The proclamation would take place in 1973.]

Michael Galant

So it was Cabral himself who tasked you with documenting the struggle for independence. What can you tell us about this time — about the liberation war, Cabral, and what came next?

Flora Gomes

Yes, it was Cabral, but Cabral didn’t want us to talk about him. He always spoke in the plural. He always said: “we,” “our people,” “our hospital,” “our school.” That means that yes, he was there, but he was carried along by the larger dynamic. For him, it was about the liberation struggle.

I imagine that when he asked us to do this, it was to see and to record the sacrifice of the people of Guinea-Bissau, and the people of Cape Verde. That’s what he asked us to record. Because the struggle was very violent. Like any liberation struggle, it had its very cruel side.

In the liberated zone, we saw children who were in school, on the school bus, who had to flee the planes that came to bomb. There were nurses who were at their jobs, in field hospitals, who were there providing care, but they always had to be ready to flee. And that’s what Cabral wanted to show. He wanted to show the world that it was us, the Bissau-Guineans and Cape Verdeans, who liberated our country.

It’s true that we had the support of the Cubans at the time, the Soviet Union, Sweden, and other friendly countries, not to mention the Republic of Guinea-Conakry, Senegal, Gambia, Mali — all these countries, they gave us what they had. Cabral wanted us to remember that. He always said: we must never forget the people who supported us during this war.

I think that, generally speaking, that’s what Cabral wanted. If we speak of Cabral himself, it’s because he was the leader — he was the man who led an innovation in the way of thinking of a generation, a generation to which I belong.

Michael Galant

And after the war?

Flora Gomes

As you know, we lost Cabral in that march for liberation. We lost Cabral on that journey. What does that mean? It means that we lost Cabral just when we needed him most, because it was almost the date of the unilateral proclamation of statehood.

They assassinated Cabral only a week or a few days after he had sent a message to the fighters, to the people of the world who were helping us in this struggle, saying that we would soon be part of the free states of Africa. He was assassinated on January 20, 1973. And then, on September 24 of the same year, there was that historic meeting of the Assembly that proclaimed the State of Guinea-Bissau.

It has to be said that we suffered with the loss of Cabral, because no one else could replace him. He was unique. It hurt us so much that he had died, after independence. And a few years later, in the 1980s, there was the coup d’état in Guinea-Bissau, led by Nino [João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira].

Michael Galant

Since that time, you and Sana have both become something of legends of African cinema, and cinema in general, with works that often cover the anti-colonial struggle — including your latest film, for which you’re now raising funds. Here’s the big question: How do you conceive of the relationship between cinema and politics? How do you approach making films with a goal of advancing the struggle?

Flora Gomes

It’s true that to make movies, you need the means to do it. Cinema is very expensive. But we don’t want money just to make a film. We want money to tell a specific story.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have the experience today to tell the story we want to tell. But I don’t think I’m really a film legend. I just consider myself someone who wants to paint a picture but doesn’t have a brush. We’re not interested in money. What interests us is the story we’re going to tell — how the painting will come out, how it will be understood.

Personally, I’m a product of the struggle and of politics. Everything I say today is what I’ve lived. Personally, politics has shaped me. Life is politics. You can’t separate these two things. Cinema is important as the images are freer, and you can interpret them as you want to interpret them.

Michael Galant

Why now? Looking at Guinea-Bissau, at West Africa, and indeed at the entire world, what do we have to learn from this film today?

Flora Gomes

I think this film has a simple aim, which is to pay tribute to the people, starting with Cabral and the people with whom Cabral created an unforgettable story in Africa. It’s very important that we hold on to this story today — that we talk about it — because there’s so much misinformation circulating through our media, through social networks.

I think that generations of Africans, young people, need to understand that this country didn’t have the luck to achieve independence like the Senegalese did, without a [violent] struggle. We had a struggle that lasted eleven years, in which we lost friends, families, colleagues, acquaintances. And we can’t let that memory disappear. Cabral will soon be a hundred years old, in September. We wanted to record something that would remain in the memory of the youth of Africa — and (why not) the youth of the world.

As far as lessons to be learned, I think there’s one thing that’s obvious, which is that Cabral imagined a new role for women in the struggle. That’s something nobody was talking about. We talk about the role of women today, but where does this story come from?

The possibility of reserving women a particular place in a government or in an organization — Cabral had this idea. Parity. Cabral had done this in the 1960s. There was an organization of parties — he said: “There must, obligatorily, be a minimum number of women on each committee.”

Another thing that Cabral taught, in my opinion, is to not be afraid. Because the people lived with a lot of fears — of marabouts, spirits, things like that. Cabral always believed that man should be free in his thinking.

He wasn’t afraid that someone might shoot him — of the Kalashnikov, of the army. He taught you to think with your own head and walk with your own feet. That’s Cabral’s idea. You shouldn’t wait for people to tell you what you are going to do. That’s how we came to proclaim independence as we did.

As far as the struggle against colonialism was concerned, Cabral was very clear about the word “colonialism.” He said: “We are fighting against colonialism, against Portuguese fascism. We are not fighting against the Portuguese people.” And I think it was very intelligent of him to mark this difference, to say: “We are fighting because the Portuguese people are also suffering like us.”

It was not just the Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean people who were going to do the fighting. He said that the struggle against fascism was the struggle of the Portuguese people. We were fighting colonialism. In this struggle, we found ourselves alongside the Portuguese people.

It was very important not to conflate the Portuguese with the colonial system. It was also important not to think that we were fighting the Portuguese because they were white. He said that we were also fighting against black Africans who wanted to replace the white colonizers.

These are things that I think are worthwhile for young people to take up and cultivate. Cabral cultivated a practice of taking every day, of respecting, of appreciating culture. He was very deep, Cabral. He was like any other human being — he liked music, he liked being with women, and all that. He was not a god. But I’m completely into his thoughts. That’s why I invite all young people to read and listen to Cabral.