Following Guinea-Bissau’s fifteen year struggle for independence from Portuguese rule, cinema was used as an important, revolutionary tool to address social change. The film industry was quickly established after the country became independent in 1973, but it remained a state-governed enterprise that was poorly funded, and a lack of distribution and public cinemas means that many films were not widely viewed in the country. The war for independence had left many citizens impoverished, and the impact of these years of deprivation was felt strongly in the social-realist films and documentaries being produced.
Gomes’ films often deal with symbolic themes of history, memory and modern cultural identity in post-independence Guinea-Bissau. Born to illiterate parents in Cadique, Guinea-Bissau in 1949, Gomes left his home country in 1972 to study at the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography in Havana, where he became influenced by the films of Ousmane Sembène, one of the most celebrated and influential directors of new African cinema.
Gomes returned to the newly liberated Guinea-Bissau to film the country’s independence ceremony. Strongly influenced by the revolutionary politics of thinker and philosopher Amilcar Cabral, Gomes’ first feature was the acclaimed Mortu Nega (Death Denied or Those Whom Death Refuse, 1988), one of the first feature films to be filmed in Guinea-Bissau. Mortu Nega, released to mark the 25th anniversary of independence, is a historical docu-fiction film which charts the period from January 1973 leading up to the end of colonial rule in 1975. A major breakthrough for Gomes, the film was selected for the Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival, and was awarded best film and best actress prizes at the 1988 Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO) in Burkina-Faso. After the recognition of Mortu Nega, Gomes worked as an intern with the revered French director Chris Marker, producing a number of shorts. His second feature Os Olhos Azuis de Yonta (The Blue Eyes of Yonta, 1992) won the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category at the Cannes Film Festival.
The tumultuous civil war in Guinea-Bissau in the late 1990s resulted in many citizens such as Gomes fleeing the country. Subsequently, his 2002 film Nha Fala (My Voice), a vibrant, at times whimsical musical comedy about a young African woman who moves to Paris but is afflicted by a family curse, had to be shot in France and Cape Verde. The film is considered radical in its theme of female empowerment and its complex, feminist representation of women, rarely seen in African cinema. Speaking about the film, Gomes said that ‘Whenever Africa is spoken about or depicted, it is always in terms of the aid we receive, war, people dying of starvation, sick people… I want people to see our Africa, the Africa of my dreams, the Africa that I love… It is a happy Africa, where people dance, where people can speak freely. That is why I made this film. It is my take on the future for a new generation.’ The film opens with a dedication to Cabral; ‘Father of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, assassinated in 1973.’
His international recognition continued to flourish; Nha Fala was the only African film to be screened at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival and it won several awards at the Venice Film Festival. Gomes’s diverse filmography includes the mythic ecological folktale of Po di Sangui, (Tree of Blood, 1999) and the feature length documentary As Duas Faces da Guerra (The Two Faces of War, 2007) co-directed with Diana Andringa, featuring interviews with veterans from Guinea, Portugal and Cape Verde discussing their experience of civil war, colonial rule and post-war independence. In 2000, Gomes was honoured by the French government, receiving the prestigious title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.
Constrained by economic restrictions at home, there have been no other major filmmakers to emerge from Guinea-Bissau since Gomes, whose films are not only important historical documents of postcolonial experience, but remain a significant contribution to the appreciation of African cinema and culture.