Maputo’s masked Mapiko dancers

A new film about how Mozambican youth express and negotiate the country's post-socialist modernity through dance.

Still from the forthcoming "The Sound of Masks."

Signs of Mozambique’s booming economy on the one hand and rising inequality on the other can be noticed all over the country. Now even the welfare of those who have fought for the country’s independence has become subordinate to business interests. The “Zona Militar” in the capital Maputo, where demobilized soldiers from both the independence and civil wars live, is threatened to be demolished to make space for high rises for the rich. But the people found a form of expression for their protest–the Mapiko dance–the focus of a new documentary, “The Sounds of Masks.” The dance is part of an initiation ritual of the Makonde from northern Mozambique, during which youths are introduced to the world of adulthood–life and death, social and political struggle. According to University of Western Cape Historian Paolo Israel, the dance features “idioms through which Mozambican youth expresses and negotiates its post-socialist modernity.” How that modernity is negotiated in the context of the threats to the Zona Militar is focus of the film. We spoke to the directors, Sara Gouveia and Kofi Zwana about their project:

What is your new film about?

Our film focuses on a group of Makonde people living in the military zone in Maputo. They were given this land as a reward for fighting in both the independence and civil wars. Ironically, they are currently facing eviction by the very same government they fought for to make way for housing and complexes for the rich.

Using their Mapiko dance, which has become a living archive of their history from colonialism to the present day, we look at this current situation against the backdrop of a longer struggle over time. We will blend poetic observation with experimental dance sequences in order to create a dynamic interpretation of Mozambique’s journey and its peoples’ struggles.

How did you come across the subject for your film?

We came across a particular Mapiko dance group called “Massacre de Mueda” when they performed in Cape Town during the Out Of The Box Festival in 2011. They actually got nominated for “best puppet manipulation”, “for showing how masks are ‘originally’ used in an African ritual context.”

We had been filming some of the shows at the festival with a colleague and we were asked to film the group by Paolo Israel, an anthropologist and Professor at the University of the Western Cape, who had organized for the dancers to come to Cape Town. When we saw the show we knew that there was something really beautiful there that should be taken to a broader audience, but we had no idea how. We are not anthropologists so we knew that we needed something more than the dances to turn this into a film that could travel to a general audience. In 2013, Kofi and I decided to take a chance and travel to Maputo as a holiday/work trip (more work than holiday…) to try to understand if there was a story we could explore using film. At this stage we still believed most of the story would take place in the North of Mozambique, which is where the Makonde people are originally from. But while we were in Maputo interviewing various people in the Zona Militar, we found out about the possible evictions and realized that the story we wanted to tell was right there.

We spent 10 days in Maputo with Atanásio, who has become the main character in our film, and in the community in order to identify the people that could help us tell this story. Atanásio was formally considered one of the best Mapiko dancers in the country and is currently heading up the research department of the National Institute of Dance and Song. It is through his eyes that we are introduced to the Zona, the dance and the history of the country. He is a fiery and passionate character who is not afraid to say what is on his mind, so this fearlessness combined with his anthropology and philosophy background ensures us some challenging discussions and thoughts as we follow the eviction process.

How does music and dance help people who will be expelled from the Zona Militar confront the injustice?

Outside of being a form of expression and celebration, the Mapiko dance has long been used by the Makonde as a form of satire. While they tell many stories of the past to remind the younger generations of their history, they often use the dance to comment on what is happening in the present, and so the dance becomes a form of social commentary and expression. One of the key elements of the Mapiko tradition is its ability to unite people and rally them together which is how we believe the dance will help the community during this struggle.

The Zona Militar is an important historical neighbourhood that is about to be completely remodeled. It sits on one of the richest areas in Maputo, Sommerschield, so it’s very likely that the government will evict them sooner rather than later, as the area has potential for investors and businesses. But some of these people have been living here for more than 30 years. They fought for the country’s independence and fought for the government in the civil war. They have raised their children and grandchildren there. To move them to the outskirts of the city is not only disrespectful to the influence they had in the country’s struggles, but it also means that the people will be split up and the traditional ceremonies they still perform in the Zona will get eventually lost, as they won’t have a “base” anymore. I think we will be able to capture these conflicts through their dances. The Makonde people have been sort of outcasts in the Mozambican context, and keeping certain traditions alive is what allows them to keep hold of their identities in a contemporary, cosmopolitan and modernized Maputo. In the last elections, that took place in October, the newly elected President, Filipe Nyusi, became the first Makonde person to ever hold such a position of power, so we are curious to see whether that will make any difference in the fate of the Zona and how people feel about it.

What has been the reaction of the Maputo administration so far to the people’s protest?

Due to 2014 being an election year, the reaction of the administration has been quiet. The evictions were initially set to happen in 2015, but no specific date was given, so we are trying to follow the news to see if something is confirmed or not. We haven’t had a chance to talk to people in the administration yet but this is the plan for our next trip. It’s really important to us that we get both sides of the conflict because obviously nothing is ever as clear cut as it seems. It’s also important to understand from the administration what the community’s options are. We have watched a couple of interviews with the previous Minister of Defense, who argued that this is the best option for the community at this time, as in the future other people could simply evict them without giving them an alternative, leaving them homeless.

One of our characters, Moisés, suggested that even though they wouldn’t be able to keep their houses and gardens, that the government could at least build blocks of flats in the area and offer them to the current residents, so that they can at least carry on living and working in the center of the city. We are curious to see if that will become a possibility. That would be a small victory, but a victory nonetheless, the other options are far worse.

In your view, what do the problems of the people in the film say about the broader struggles Mozambique lives through currently?

Mozambique is going through a lot of changes. Since they have found oil and natural gas in the country there have been a number of foreign investors interested in exploring these opportunities. Though this will help grow their economy we fear that more of these eviction cases will happen throughout the country and the gap between rich and poor will grow even further. So in a sense, this story looks at the present and in a strange way also predicts the future of people living in similar situations. Unfortunately, this is not only happening in Mozambique. Gentrification has been happening in many cities around the globe, so we think this story works as a microcosm that can open up discussion about a much bigger problem.

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