Whether you like it or not, most contemporary African cinema requires money from the "first world" to come to fruition and, nevertheless, still struggles to attract interest, gain visibility and deliver on its promise. In a 30-year career as director, Guinea-Bissau native Flora Gomes has only managed to direct five fiction features, all of which financed with European monies on shoe-string budgets; despite having secured American actor Danny Glover to play a key role in A República di Mininus, the film has attracted little interest since its completion in 2011.

     It's fair to say this is simply because it isn't a very good film, though it is an amiable, well-meaning one, spinning an interesting premise into an awkward, jumbled film; the initial scenes suggest we're in for a child-soldier tale, with a small band of armed teenage boys attacking a village, killing some of the adults and taking with them the survivors, but after this clumsy, tasteless opening the film switches to the big city and sets sail on its course of becoming a thoughtful children's fantasy. Basically, Mr. Gomes' film is set on a "land of make-believe", the title's "children's republic" - the big city where, after a military attack, all adults fled leaving only behind the kids, all of which realise they've stopped growing up, and one elder, former government adviser Dubem (Mr. Glover). The city becomes in effect a huge sandbox where the children "learn by doing", hopefully realising the promise that adults failed to deliver on.

     The arrival of a small party of survivors from the initial village attack - two girls, two boys and the subdued boy soldier Iron Hand (Hedviges Mamudo) - forces a confrontation: the rules are that they either are accepted by the others or leave the city, suggesting that this republic is a practical application of a tribal village finding a way to live together day by day. Mr. Gomes is painting the idea of democracy as something intrinsic to African traditions, and a bridge between past and present being understood in practice by the kids who will be the future, and the idea of kids playing at grown-ups is mirrored in the film's easy-going presentation. The cast of children is actively playing at being actors, taking the game as seriously as their characters play at being grown-ups, and often all the director does is partake of the kids' energy and commitment, remaining attentive to their physical presence, with Mr. Glover's kindly gaze that of a grandfather enjoying the children's games.

     All fine and dandy, but the problems lie elsewhere: in the shapeless scripting that leaves a number of plot points either unexplained or unresolved (though the film's short length may also suggest some of it could have been left on the cutting floor), in Mr. Gomes' rather non-descript and often amateurish handling, part of which may come from the need to hide the obviously low-budget production values; in DP João Ribeiro's unequal cinematography, going from flat TV movie lighting to some lovely landscape and location work; above all, in the decision to have the film entirely spoken in English, which may have been necessary for practical reasons but ends up having all the kids speak in an urban-American inflected English that undermines the Afrocentric attitude. But, for all those flaws, it's very hard to bear any ill will against A República di Mininus; it isn't a very good film, true, but the sincerity and naïveté with which it presents itself, the simplicity of its message, the general good cheer of the entire project making do with what little it's got, end up assuaging any qualms and sweeping away any condescendence. It is what it is, and it asks to not be taken for more than what it is.

Cast: Danny Glover, Hedviges Mamudo, Melanie de Vales Rafael, Joyce Simbine Saiete, Bruno Mauro Armindo Nhavene, Anaïs Adrianopoulos, Stephen Carew, Maurice Ngwakum
Director: Flora Gomes
Screenplay: Franck Moisnard, Mr. Gomes
Cinematography: João Ribeiro (colour)
Music: Youssou n'Dour, Papa Ouma Ngour
Designer: Tim Pannen
Costumes: Oumou Sy
Editor: Dominique Pâris
Producers: Maria João Mayer, François d'Artemare (Filmes do Tejo and Films de l'Après-Midi in co-production with Neue Metropolis Filmproduktion, Saga Film, RTP and Telecine Bissau Produções)
Portugal/France/Germany/Belgium/Guinea-Bissau, 2011, 78 minutes

Screened: producer advance DVD screener, Lisbon, May 8th 2013


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