Under the radar

Guinea Bissau’s Sana Na N’Hada is one of Africa’s most important filmmakers today.

Director Sana Na N’Hada on the left (Photo: LX Films, Lisbon).

In a cinematic career spanning some four plus decades Sana Na N’Hada has borne witness to the best and the worst times in Guinea-Bissau. He joined Amìlcar Cabral’s revolutionary army in the heady days of the war for independence. In the restive years following self-rule he set about making evocative films that, at their very best, captured and challenged the prevailing zeitgeist. Today, approaching his 65th year, undiminished and evermore imaginative, he is still hard at work shedding light on the political and social realities in his homeland.

His latest film Kadjike (Sacred Bush), 2014, is set on the pristine shores of the Bijagós Archipelago, and follows the lives and rituals of the islanders as they face up to the threat of drug traffickers in their midst.

In the last decade Guinea-Bissau has become the key transit hub for cocaine trading between Latin America and Europe. The Bijagós Archipelago, a sprawling mass of largely uninhabited islands, has been the focal point of trafficking activity in the country that has turned it into what some observers call a ‘narco-state’.

On a simple level, Kadjike is a coming of age drama. On a deeper level it is a meditation on the schism between tradition, Guinean customs, and the rising tide of modernity–something which has been a constant theme throughout N’Hada’s cinematic career.

On the eve of his initiation into adulthood Ankina is torn between his responsibilities to his people and his love for a girl with whom customs forbid a relation. Drug traffickers promising a better life in the city lure his boyhood friend Toh away from the island. Facing important decisions at the crossroads of their young lives, both boys must find a way out of their predicaments – a way back to their people.

On location for ‘Kadjike.’

The poignancy of this film lies in the juxtaposition between the natural beauty of the archipelago and the imminent dangers that lurk in the shadows of this fragile world.

“I want to show people why the natural beauty of my country is so important and why we need to stand together to prevent our nation and culture to be harmed” – N’Hada says.

Kadjike is only N’Hada’s second feature film. His first, Xime (1994), follows the struggles of a rice peasant confronted with losing the authority over his two sons during the fight for independence.

In the intervening years N’Hada has flirted with both documentary and shorts. Despite his minimal output he is arguably one of the most important filmmakers on the continent today and has long been regarded, along with his contemporary Flora Gomes, a titan of Guinean cinema. Both are credited with producing the first ever fiction film (Mortu Nega, 1988) to be made in Guinea-Bissau.

N’Hada’s career in cinema began during his days as a revolutionary in Amìlcar Cabral’s independence movement. He was taught first aid in order to help out at the local field hospitals, and with the remaining part of his time he went from village to village to educate the people about the fight for independence. It was during this time that he began to turn his back on his medical studies in favour of cinema. At the behest of Cabral he travelled to Havana along with Gomes, studying under the auspices of legendary Cuban cinematographer Santiago Àlvarez.

Upon his return to Guinea-Bissau he rejoined Cabral’s movement and set about documenting the war of independence on film. Reflecting on his cinematic conversion he states, “I didn’t come into cinema because of talent but because I felt obligated to tell certain stories. There has always been a question of necessity.”

In 1976, shortly after independence, N’Hada co-directed two short films with Gomes: The Return of Cabral and Anos No Assa Luta – both tributes to the revolution and to their great political icon Amìlcar Cabral.

His life long friendship and collaborations with Gomes has produced some seminal works in the canon of Guinean cinema. His greatest recognition however has come in the form of Sans Soleil, a documentary collaboration with French filmmaker Chris Marker. Shot in the early eighties, it was recently voted one of the top five best documentaries ever made.

As well as Gomes and Chris Marker, N’Hada counts celebrated Senegalese filmmaker Sembène Ousmane and Santiago Àlvarez among his great cinematic influences.

Despite all the uncertainty facing his country today N’Hada remains hopeful about the future. As we speak, he is already turning his mind to his next feature, a film documenting the positive effects of independence in his homeland.

With Luta Ca Caba Inda (The Struggle is Not Over Yet), an ongoing project first shown in 2012, N’Hada may yet bequeath his most profound legacy to Guinean cinema. Along with Gomes he has set out to find and make accessible the remains of raw film material made in the country after independence but either lost or damaged in the era of political upheaval.

For a man who has seen so much and lived through such uncertain times it is perhaps the defining point of reference for his dedication to his country and his people that he has found time, since 1979, to head the National Institute of Cinema of Guinea-Bissau.

Further Reading

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After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.