The exiled writer from Equatorial Guinea
A new documentary about Equatorial Guinea and the exiled writer Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel provides an honest, critical examination of the country's political, social, and cultural issues.
In 2011, Equatoguinean writer Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel fled his country. He had been on a hunger strike against the 41-year-old dictatorship of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Laurel ended up in Barcelona, Spain, his country’s former colonizer. The Catalan journalist and documentarian Marc Serena’s 2019 film El escritor de un país sin librerías (The Writer from a Country Without Bookstores) combines a biopic of Laurel with a critical examination of Obiang’s regime. Shot and produced clandestinely with the project title Guinea, el documental prohibido (Guinea, The Forbidden Documentary) used for crowdfunding, the film has many powerful moments but a slight disjointedness overall as it switches between snapshots of Laurel’s life and intensive sociopolitical critiques of Equatorial Guinea.
The film opens with a snapshot of Laurel’s place of birth (Annobón) and early years followed by a quick overview of Spain’s colonial history in Equatorial Guinea (with archival footage), interspersed with quotes from Laurel and shots of his daily life in Barcelona. (Equatorial Guinea was colonized by Spain from the late eighteenth century until independence in 1968.) We see Laurel speaking at a decolonization lecture series and then teaching secondary school students about his home country and the circumstances that led to his exile, and we also start to learn (with Equatoguinean television footage and clips from Obiang’s son’s Instagram account) about the deep-seated corruption in the country. All of this sets the stage for a location shift to Malabo, where the rest of the film takes place, Laurel guiding us through the city.
Laurel shows us fisherman on the shore, the home of his extended family in Malabo, and some parts of the city before sitting down for a beer with a few friends (among them novelist Trifonia Melibea Obono and musician Negro Bey) where they have a discussion about cultural stagnation in the country and the difficulty of increasing engagement with the arts, particularly amongst youth. Obono flatly points out that even though there is a generation of Equatoguinean youth eager to consume art and culture, there is not a place to do so (alluding to the title of the film). In an August 2020 interview, Laurel elaborated on the title of the film, affirming that there were indeed no bookstores when he was growing up, and although one opened in Malabo in 2010, it was closed when the documentary was being made. In spite of being in the company of other writer friends, very little is said about Laurel’s own literary work apart from the occasional interspersed quote, usually decrying the political situation of the country.
Laurel began writing in his teens (the 1980s), winning prizes for his poetry and plays at the Spanish-Guinean Cultural Center’s literary contests in Malabo. Although his native language is Annobonese Creole, Laurel writes exclusively in Spanish, and to date, two of his more than a dozen books, By Night the Mountain Burns (2014) and The Gurugu Pledge (2017), have been translated into English. Many of Ávila’s fiction and poetry works have autobiographical elements, though he has also written two nonfiction books, Guinea Ecuatorial, Vísceras (Equatorial Guinea, Entrails) and El derecho de pernada: Cómo se vive el feudalismo en el siglo XXI (The Lord’s Right: How Feudalism Lives on in the 21st Century), the latter of which is quoted in the film to explain how the major businessmen of Guinea are ministers or army generals in the government who rely on Obiang and his policies to sustain themselves. American author William Vollmann wrote (of The Gurugu Pledge) “Here is the voice of someone who has courted and suffered persecution for the sake of a better world,” and Spanish professor and Equatoguinean literature specialist Elisa Rizo wrote in 2004 “Ávila Laurel focuses on the fictionalization of Guinea’s early 20th century colonial past as an opportunity to deconstruct—within the framework of the genre of the novel—the colonial ideology that underpins modern historiographic discourse” (my translation). Indeed, even from the few charged quotes of Laurel’s in the film, one gets a sense of his dissident zeal, reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s eschewing of “prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.”
We accompany Laurel to a theatre performance and afterward to a bar, providing a glimpse into Malabo’s nightlife scene. Laurel narrates his own words about the petroleum-based economy of Equatorial Guinea and the symbiotic-nepotistic relationship between the Obiang’s government and the country’s private sector while we see images of poverty on the streets juxtaposed with shining skyscrapers of the petrol companies. Laurel also criticizes Christianity as we watch a church choir singing, commenting that “Christianity’s idea of the afterlife gives people reassurance that God will judge them, but when you entrust the judgment of your present to a future you do not know, you are lost” (my translation).
Indeed, the history of Christianity in Equatorial Guinea is a long one. Portuguese colonization of the islands in the fifteenth century brought Catholicism, and Spain’s acquisition of the colonies in the eighteenth century spread it pervasively. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 88.7% of the Equatoguinean population was Christian, making it Africa’s tenth-most Christian country by percentage of population, though the second-most Catholic country in the continent (after the Seychelles). Today (and for the past few decades), the Obiang regime appears to have a tight grip on the Church. An anonymous internal ecclesiastical source noted in a 2012 article that “One way [of offering hope to suffering people] is through homilies, but…We must be very careful, because spies come to the masses to control what is said. All of Guinea is a big prison” (my translation). Bubi (an ethnic minority—the vast majority of the Equatoguinean power structure is Fang) priest Jorge Bita Caecó was assassinated in 2011, and another anonymous source notes (in the same article) that “critical priests are murdered and not even investigated…[yet the bishops] seem to speak only of heavenly music” (my translation). Laurel’s denunciation of Christianity juxtaposed with the jubilant choir singing uplifting lyrics renders the scene glum, almost farcical.
The critique continues with two of Laurel’s friends, discussing the heavy presence of armed soldiers and the draconian penal system. As before, Laurel’s identity as a political activist is foregrounded.
A long montage of television footage ranging from comically laudatory birthday celebrations for President Obiang to television talking heads lavishing praise on the government and Obiang himself, leaves no doubt whatsoever about the extent of media freedom and manipulation in Equatorial Guinea. The film culminates in a live performance of Negro Bey’s “Carta al Presidente” (“Letter to the President”). The lyrics (“Disinformation to the population, I call it a conspiracy to the nation…When I look at the big picture, I only see criminals that block culture, and the system defends them,”) openly and boldly criticize Obiang’s maltreatment of the country’s education, healthcare, and social state, and the song clearly shows that Bey is a supremely talented musician who ought to be better known both inside and outside of Equatorial Guinea.
Overall, the film is a damning indictment of the Obiang government and the political and economic state of modern Equatorial Guinea. Laurel’s dialogues with his friends and the scenes from around Malabo breathe life into his political writings, though the absence of his fiction and poetry work and the larger focus of the film on Equatorial Guinea as a whole suggest that the clandestine name of the project during its production—Guinea, el documental prohibido (Guinea, The Forbidden Documentary)—may have been more fitting a title.