A new name joins the current generation of Portuguese filmmakers in the person of João Viana, former assistant to the late Paulo Rocha and author of a handful of shorts, making his feature debut with an endearingly offbeat project. Set in the African country of Guinea-Bissau and invoking the ghosts of colonial Portugal in its tale of conflict between tradition and modernity, A Batalha de Tabatô grew out of Mr. Viana's original plan for a short film suggested by a chance conversation with a European musician seeking to visit the titular Guinean village, known for its rich musical traditions. The plan grew to accomodate not only the short and this feature - a more narrative, fleshed-out version of the short - but two others dealing with the many issues that surrounded the production.

     Entirely shot in location in Tabatô, a sort of musical capital of traditional rhythms and music, closely entwined with the mystical traditions of the local ethnic Mandinkas, the loose storyline has the elderly Baio (Mutar Djebaté) return from exile in Lisbon to attend his daughter Fatu's (Fatu Djebaté) marriage to local itinerant musician Idrissa (Mamadu Baio). Baio is, in fact, a former musician whose involvement in the colonial wars cut him off from his roots, suggesting his absence of touch with music has made him vulnerable to possession by evil spirits; the titular "Battle of Tabatô" is, then, that between good and evil, light and dark, music and noise, symbolised in Baio's surrendering to the spirits of war and need for music as a healing spirit reconnecting him to his roots. Mr. Viana does it through a peculiarly, almost deliberately naïve combination of documentary tropes, improvised acting from non-professionals and low-budget guerilla filmmaking, unhelped by the peculiar circumstances in which the film was produced: the production lost all of its lighting equipment in a ferryboat accident and had to make do with location shooting using natural light.

     But these shortcomings are overcome by the genuine warmth and meandering nature of the loose, mysterious plot, and by the attention paid to sound and, especially, music throughout the film's short length. How much of it was deliberate and how much a happy accident isn't quite understandable from the end result, but it doesn't really matter since A Batalha de Tabatô is such an enjoyable, intriguing debut.

Cast: Mutar Djebaté, Fatu Djebaté, Mamadu Baio
Director and writer: João Viana
Cinematography: Mário Miranda (black & white)
Music: Pedro Carneiro
Art director: Filipe André Alves
Costumes: Luís Buchinho
Editor: Edgar Feldman
Producer: Mr. Viana (Papaveronoir Filmes in co-production with Radio and Television of Portugal)
Portugal, 2013, 79 minutes

Screened: producer private screening, Medeia King 1 (Lisbon), January 31st 2013



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