The resilience of culture

The film The Sound of Masks explores dance, memory and the meaning of life, ancestry, culture and political struggle in postcolonial Mozambique.

Still from film The Sound of Masks.

I am Atanásio Cosme Nyusi,
son of my father, healer without master
born on the Makonde plateau
where there are bridges without rivers
and the people believe in life after death

The Sound of Masks is a visual meditation on the nature of memory in postcolonial societies ravaged by conflict, and a nonlinear biopic of a remarkable, if little-known, artist. This documentary tells the story of Atanásio Cosme Nyusi, dancer, choreographer, musician and researcher, following him through his quotidian perambulations across the urban spaces of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. Walking wearily back and forth from his workplace, a dilapidated archive in the city’s downtown, to the theatre where he once performed as a professional, to his home filled with books and sculptures, to the neighborhood where together with kinsmen and friends he perpetuates the ancestral tradition of Mapiko masking which gives the film its title, Atanásio reminisces and ruminates aloud about the meaning of life, ancestry, culture and political struggle. Along the way he dialogues with comrades, colleagues and elders, as well as his son, interrogating the meanings of a trajectory—his own—which time seems to have rendered opaque and elusive. Atanásio’s presence is both radiant and wistful, his voice warm and wry, his mind inclined to eccentric imagery and philosophical provocation. The narrative is deftly punctuated by archival footage and dance performances, which work in counterpoint to evoke alternative memories of the country’s history.

If one were to stretch back into a straight line the life story told in this sinuous and spellbinding visual journey, it would go more or less as follows. Atanásio was born in Tanzania as a child refugee of the war against Portuguese colonialism, son of a guerrilla of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), nicknamed Nantova, the deathless, for his arcane ability to transfer any battle wound to the nearest living being.

Still from film.

From his father Atanásio inherited the passion and talent for the ancestral tradition of Mapiko masking, steeped in ritual secrecy and inclined to social satire. In 1978 Nantova summoned his son, who was growing up wild in a returnee village of the northerly Cabo Delgado province, to join him in the country’s capital, two thousand kilometers south. There Atanásio integrated the burgeoning National Company of Dance and Song and was projected into stardom, traveling on both sides of the Iron Curtain to perform neotraditional ballets inspired by the nationalist rhetoric of the socialist state. Meanwhile he spearheaded a grassroots Mapiko group established by Makonde war veterans in the Military Zone, a neighborhood bestowed to them in recognition of the crucial role they played in the liberation struggle. Soon civil war and economic collapse would cast a looming shadow on this upward trajectory. After performing the lead role in a ballet which celebrated the peace accords between Frelimo and the contras movement Renamo, choreographed by his younger and more entrepreneurial brother, Atanásio gradually withdrew to the backstage. He was first charged to lead a research project on traditional dance located in the National Company, only to see the funds syphoned off and the equipment breaking down; then affected to tend after an archival collection on cultural heritage doomed to inevitable decay. There, among desolate metal bookshelves and desks, he shuffles his feet like one of the ghosts which his ancestral masks embody. The most poignant symbol of this alienation is a filing cabinet filled with cards that refer to books destroyed by flood, lost or misplaced. “If it were for me,” Atanásio comments wryly to an intern, “I’d sell it for scraps and eat the money.”

Still from film.

The fracture in memory which is the documentary’s central theme is most evident in the conversations that Atanásio entertains with Natepo, his teenage son, in which he belatedly tries to spark curiosity for a heritage which he has somewhat failed to transmit. Meanwhile, other characters discuss the possibility of eviction from the military neighborhood by the hand of money-hungry neoliberal elites, and the resilience of culture in the face of change. These dialogues are underscored by familiar images of refuse, ruination, and unbridled urban development. In the closing shots of the film, Atanásio offers a pregnant allegory for this experience of mnemonic disconnection, through the myth of Lipanyangule, a bogey who traverses unscathed centuries of war and mayhem, only to find himself unable to understand whether the unrelenting nightmares that plague his nights are dream or reality.

The point of resistance to the tendency to melancholic allegory which infuses the film are the titular masks, skillfully filmed live and in studio, which ambush the viewer with vibrancy, poise and the sudden surprise of a guerrilla assault. Ultimately, they remain the film’s enigmatic protagonists. Bearded oldsters, revolutionary leaders, bejeweled women, deformed tricksters, and a gleaming skull carved by Nantova the deathless—all dance loud and colorful, dazzling, unpredictable, and ultimately indecipherable.

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