Spell Reel. 2017. Germany/Portugal/France/Guinea-Bissau. Directed by Filipa César. Courtesy of the filmmaker

Spell Reel, the debut feature from Portuguese artist Filipa César, is a collaborative reflection on West African political history—and the role of moving images in the creation and legacy of that history. Based in Berlin for most of the last decade, César has worked closely with Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in its initiative to preserve the history of revolutionary cinema in Guinea-Bissau through research, digitization, and dissemination of the holdings at the National Film Institute of Guinea-Bissau (INCA – Instituto Nacional de Cinema e Audiovisual). Filmmakers Sana Na N'Hada, Flora Gomes, José Bolama Cobumba, and Josefina Crato, who studied filmmaking in Cuba at the directive of revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral, set out to document Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal (1963–74) and the subsequent years of socialist rule. In 1979, Chris Marker would spend several months with these filmmakers, and he would later integrate carnival footage shot by N'Hada into his Sans Soleil. Following the 1980 military coup, much of the revolutionary films were lost; those that remained were little known and at risk of disappearing.

Throughout the film, César adeptly considers the notion archiving itself. Reflecting upon the fact that much of the footage from the period survives only as fragments, the film asks, What is restoration where there is no original to return to? In superbly vivid tableaux, the film juxtaposes the black-and-white 16mm footage with contemporary digital images, subtly manipulating scale, orientation, and text to alternatively create distance or achieve proximity between past and present. The film also documents the 2014 mobile cinema tour that introduced the digitized footage to Guinean audiences who were discovering a chapter in their history for the first time. N'Hada, Gomes, and others offered commentary during the screenings, positing that collective experience and oral history are intrinsic to the films’ renewed life.

Spell Reel celebrates education, in the form of the mobile cinema tour, as avant-garde work, and César’s ambition and finesse in recovering a fragile artistic and social history proves she is an inheritor to the tradition explored in her film: art that furthers intellectual and political ideals for all.

Organized by Sophie Cavoulacos, Assistant Curator, Department of Film.

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