In a film about war, can you leave the politics out?

Still from film The Train of Salt and Sugar

The film The Train of Salt and Sugar, set in 1988 during Mozambique’s civil war, depicts a journey by rail from the city of Nampula, in the northeast of the country, to Cuamba, near the Malawi border. The train’s travelers tell a variety of stories; there are traders hoping to make good money selling salt from the coast for sugar, a rarity during the war; while others are hoping to be reunited with family. Then there is Rosa, a nurse who is on her way to her new job. The travelers are accompanied by a military battalion that is there to protect the train, its passengers and the merchandise. Yet these soldiers turn out to be as dangerous and violent as the combatants who are hidden in the bush.

The film is a Mozambican production, based on a book written by Licínio Azevedo who also directed the film. It is also the first Mozambican submission to Hollywood’s Academy Awards. Following his film, “Virgin Margarida” (2012), about the post-independence re-education camps, Azevedo takes up another controversial topic in Mozambique: the civil war.

The civil war was fought within the context of the Cold War and lasted from 1976, shortly after independence, until a peace agreement in 1992 between the then Marxist-Leninist FRELIMO government and RENAMO, a rebel movement supported first by Rhodesia’s white minority government and then apartheid South Africa, both Mozambique’s neighbors.

The violence of that war is generally silenced. Very little of the war’s history has been written down. Azevedo tells one of these stories, or many in one. At the same time, he manages to turn the movie into a captivating Mozambican western, including a duel and a tragic romance.

The film’s pace is slow, as excruciatingly slow and suspenseful as the pace of the train on its dangerous journey during which, the viewer immediately understands, confrontations with an enigmatic enemy are inevitable. The soundtrack consists mostly of the whistling and rhythmic sounds of the train. The camera lingers on the tense faces of the passengers and moves along through the desolate as well as breathtaking landscapes. The quiet travel scenes are alternated by intervals of sudden shoot-outs with a largely faceless enemy. 

The Train of Salt and Sugar highlights RENAMO’s terror tactics, the military’s brutal treatment of alleged collaborators, the abuse of women by soldiers and the magic of war. The fact that the commander of the “enemy” is able to transform himself into a monkey makes a very topical analogy with the alleged abilities of RENAMO’s leader Alfonso Dhlakama to turn into a bird. The movie’s military commander, “Seven Ways,” seems to have some similar tricks on his sleeve.

Yet politics is left out of the movie. The warring parties, representing the armed forces of the FRELIMO government and the rebels of RENAMO, are not mentioned by name. “Brothers against brothers, not knowing why they fight,” one of the lead characters says at a certain point. This illustrates the film’s message about war as the pointless destruction of life and dreams. It is, as most a film about war or an anti-war film. It shows how both sides are violent, corrupt, and eventually losing, and how the civilians who cross their paths lose even more. 

Yet, while avoiding the politics of war in Mozambique, the film was released last year at a time when the country finds itself at war again. Once more trains have been under attack by armed combatants of RENAMO. This time it is not trains of salt and sugar that are under siege, but the coal trains running from the mines — carrying minerals for multinational corporations — in the center of the country to the coastal ports. This rapid economic and social change in Mozambique comes with poverty, corruption and exclusion, creating new struggles along the “old” lines of unresolved conflicts. This is the larger tragedy of The Train of Salt and Sugar: whereas for some Mozambicans the film is about a distant past, for other Mozambicans it relates a much more recent reality.

Nikkie Wiegink

Nikkie Wiegink, a cultural anthropologist, wrote a PhD about the lives of RENAMO combatants in Mozambique and works at the Utrecht University.

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