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By Phil Hall | April 22, 2004

In 1975, Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal after a long and bloody struggle. Under the leadership of President Samora Machel, the Mozambican government immediately set about to create the National Institute of Cinema with the purpose of bringing motion pictures to a country that never produced its own films.

The giddy birth and strange life of Mozambique’s federal cinema is the subject of Margarida Cardosa’s extraordinary documentary “Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema.” It would be no small boast to claim this is one of the finest films about filmmaking ever created. Rarely has any film-related documentary presented its subject with such skill, maturity and intelligence.

The main focus of the National Institute of Cinema was the production of a weekly theatrical newsreel called “Kuxa Kanema.” The news being presented was hardly objective journalism, but rather it was blatant propaganda designed to celebrate President Machel’s pro-Soviet policies and ennoble the Mozambican people to use their newly-won independence as a means of building a new socialist republic in southern Africa. Feature film production was very uncommon and these movies inevitably towed the party line to propagandize and romanticize President Machel and his FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) army in their struggle against Portuguese rule. Independent cinema did not exist.

The challenge to the Kuxa Kanema filmmakers were many. There was no film school in the country, so film teachers and technicians from Brazil and Cuba were brought in to provide instant instructions. The country itself had relatively few cinemas, so a squadron of vans with portable 16mm projectors and screens criss-crossed the rural regions to show the films. Censorship was an accepted way of life and few Mozambicans challenged it; filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, oddly enough, came to the country with the plans of creating an independent television network and left when the government vetoed this grand notion.

Mozambique’s position between Rhodesia and South Africa resulted in the country being the subject of military invasions and bombings by the armies of those white-minority-ruled nations. Most of Mozambique in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a war zone and few camera crews dared to travel without military escorts. The war footage captured during this time is among the most tragic ever put on film, but few people ever saw it. The armed conflict’s fury prevented many of the 16mm traveling presentations from getting around the rural regions. The country’s few cinemas were destroyed by outside attacks, which further separated the films from their audiences.

With the death of President Machel in a 1986 plane crash and the rise of television, Mozambique’s film industry virtually died. The National Institute of Cinema’s headquarters fell into ruin after a fire and was never rebuilt. The films of the Kuxa Kanema remain, but they are improperly stored and run the risk of disappearing into rot. Ironically, Mozambican television is heavily dependent on foreign programming, thus negating the dream of using cameras to present a national (and nationalist) image. A viewer to Mozambique will sooner see the CNN talking heads than local leaders.

“Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema” gathers the directors, writers and technicians involved in this grand project to recall their work and to view their films, many of which have not been seen since their original presentations. The interviews are professional, cogent and invigorating, as the National Institute of Cinema veterans recall with bittersweet fondness the initial promise and encroaching disappointment at the great experiment which never quite worked. The films they produced are uncommonly well-made, considering their function and the problems facing their production. Nearly all of the films were shot on black-and-white film (it is never explained why color was not used) and the quality of the cinematography and editing was highly professional and engaging. The Kuxa Kanema newsreels are literally buried cinematic gems, regardless of their underlying ideology.

In lesser hands, “Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema” could’ve become an intolerable gloating at the failure of state-sanctioned propaganda filmmaking. But Margarida Cardoso achieves what too many so-called documentary filmmakers fail to consider: approaching a subject with intellectualism, objectivity and professionalism. At a time when too much documentary filmmaking is polluted with vapid interviews and low-grade videography, “Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema” has the brainpower to ask the right questions and knows how to organize and present the films in question. President Machel comes across as both a visionary and a fool — a man who knew the basic tenets of organizing and inspiring a nation but lacked the skills to govern effectively. The Kuxa Kanema narrators cheer the supposed brilliance of the Machel regime, but the cameras find images which contradict such fine talk: grinding poverty, vulnerable peasants defenseless to foreign attack, and an army which clearly ill-served its population. Most telling was Machel’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly asking in vain for help against South African aggression. The president who spoke in grand gestures to his people was filmed as a small figure behind a large podium at the front of a cavernous auditorium. The great leader seemed very small on the world stage–Mozambique’s strong man as a puny global figure. It’s a brilliantly cruel image, and Cardoso is wise enough to let the image speak for itself without adding unnecessary commentary.

Sadly, “Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema” is not being shown theatrically. This 52-minute documentary is aimed at the non-theatrical market. This is a major shame, since its story about one nation’s experiment in filmmaking is itself a film of great power and vision. Machel’s failure is Cardoso’s triumph, and those who find this film will come away enriched by what they find.

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