The Last Prostitute

Licínio Azevedo's "Virgin Margarida" is a critical look into Mozambique's past--its re-education camps.

Still from the film "Virgin Margarida."

In Frelimo’s (Mozambique’s party in power since independence) official story of its liberation struggle and its socialist project after independence, many aspects get silenced. One among these are the re-education centers to “purify” the “compromised” that had not yet adhered to the values of the “new man” that Frelimo intended to create. Alleged criminals, traitors, reactionaries, sex workers, alcoholics, vagrants, and religious fanatics were sent to camps in the countryside for an extended period of time, often without trial.

The 20th New York African Film Festival at the Lincoln Center is featuring a film about Frelimo’s re-education centers, “Virgin Margarida” made by Licínio Azevedo (screening today at at 3:30pm and on Monday, April 8, 8:30pm). Licínio Azevedo is a veteran film maker, originally from Brazil, but has lived in Mozambique for a long time. We held a short Q&A, below, but first the trailer:

You grew up in Brazil. What sparked your interest in Mozambique and what made you go to Mozambique to work there?

In Brazil, I was a journalist working on a newspaper in opposition to the military dictatorship. There was censorship and we were prevented from publishing information about the wars for independence of Portuguese colonies in Africa: Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. But we journalists were following the development of these struggles through information from international news agencies. Because I already knew all Latin America countries doing news stories, after independence, I wanted to know personally the reality of these African countries, our brothers. Initially, I was in Guinea-Bissau in 1976, for almost a year, then went to Mozambique, invited by film director Ruy Guerra (born in Mozambique, and living in Brazil) to work with the National Institute of Cinema in Mozambique, in whose creation he was involved. My task was to gather and write stories about the anti-colonial war that could be used for future film projects. This was in 1978 and I ended up staying in Mozambique where the transition from journalism to film happened.

Your first book on Mozambique was a collection of stories from liberation war veterans. Your new film is about the re-education centers after independence. How has your view of Mozambican politics changed over time?

My first book on Mozambique, Reports of Armed People, was just the result of this work at the National Institute of Cinema. When I first came to the country I was sent to the zone where the war had begun and was more intense — in the north of the country, close to Tanzania. I spent three months interviewing former soldiers, peasants… It was a great experience for me, a Latin American, living this time in the heart of the first liberated zones by separatists. The re-education centers, created after Independence, were an attempt to transfer experiences of these areas to the rest of the country but the context was different and a process like this, however well intentioned, did not work as had been envisioned.

You dealt with the topic of re-education centers before, in your documentary “The last Prostitute.” What is the relation between the documentary and your new feature film?

Many years ago the great Mozambican photographer Ricardo Rangel, my friend, now deceased, showed me a picture taken by him, made ​soon after the Independence, which he gave an ironic title, “The Last Prostitute.” It was a picture of a lady in a mini skirt, escorted by two soldiers to be sent to a rehabilitation center for prostitutes. Inspired by this picture I did a documentary, some 15 years ago with the same title, based on interviews with women who were in these centers: reeducandas and their reeducadoras, military women, ex-combatants. They told me the story of Margarida, a peasant girl, a teenager, who had come to town for the first time to buy her wedding trousseau. Because she didn’t have an identity document she was taken by mistake to one of the centers amid hundreds of women coming from a world that she was completely unaware of.

What do you think is the legacy of the re-education centers for politics in Mozambique?

The re-education centers have not worked at all the way it was intended: to be a training site for the “new woman,” “free from the vices of colonialism.” These centers were located in places that were completely isolated, in the jungle, without communications, and in such situations the individual who holds the power, acts like a little king.

Could you tell us a little bit about the filming of your new film? What was the greatest challenge? What did you enjoy most about making the film?

The footage was shot in an environment which imposed many difficulties. A very isolated location, at 1300 km from the capital, far from any town, because nature had to correspond to reality. With the limited means at our disposal, it was always an adventure. But the film crew was very competent and had an excellent cinematographer who likes challenges.

What do you think about Mozambican cinema, where is it and where will it go?

Mozambican cinema is undergoing a very creative phase but, on the other hand, is in the midst of a major crisis of resources. In Mozambique there are currently no funds for film production; it lacks a cultural policy that allows for the future of cinema.

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