Portuguese producer and director Inês Ponte studied Visual Anthropology at Britain’s Manchester University and brings that background to this charming and intimate portrait of the day-to-day life of a family living on a small farm in Namibe in Angola’s remote highlands.
The film, based on the eight months Ponte lived in the village – a guest at the farmstead of farmers, Madukilaxi, her husband Omuxipungo, and children – reveals the way of life for people in an area where the long dry season (230 days without rain) forces a different pace of life.
Ponte, who is heard off-camera speaking the local language (we glimpse her only once in the closing credits in a still shot from behind, the youngest son of the family clinging to her back), is clearly accepted as one of the family and the village, in true social anthropology style.
The intimacy she has attained is evident in the clear adoration the family’s youngest boy has for her, who constantly calls for her and seeks her out, and the degree to which Madukilaxi is happy to order her to stop filming so to help with some task or other.
A simple story with little narrative structure is woven around the making of a traditional doll (a gift for Ponte that the youngest boy clearly covets, but is equally happy to be the one given the important task of presenting it to her).
The village, where cattle raising and agriculture are combined, is forced into a slower pace of life during the dry season – allowing time to make the doll, fashioned with human hair and beaded thongs woven around a wooden stick, and to gather tinder for charcoal ovens and other important tasks, such as fixing fences and ensuring the scarce water from a well run nearly dry is distributed fairly.
The intimacy she has attained is evident in the clear adoration the family’s youngest boy has for her
The importance of water during the dry season is alluded to when the mother rebukes her youngest child for playing with it (he is making a kind of mud pie inside the hewn wood and reed hut that is the family home).
«Are you playing with water?» his mother snaps.
«Inês!» he appeals.
«You’re misbehaving and you call for Inês?» his mother responds with incredulity.
In another sequence, where the mother uses utterly basic technology – a wooden frame and rocking device – to swing a milk-filled gourd stoppered with a dry husk of corn, to turn it into kefir or yoghurt, the ingenuity of people presented as being largely without mod-cons (a battery-operated radio is the only piece of modern technology directly glimpsed) is displayed with a discreet pride.
Ponte tells us little or nothing about the context of lives lived much as they have been since before recorded history. Only obliquely do we understand that we are in the 21st century: Madukilaxi receives «a couple of SMS messages every day» her husband remarks apropos nothing as he and a group of young boys haul water out of the large rock-hewn well.
«They write the messages into a computer and they arrive on her phone.»
There is no direct evidence that the village has electricity – all Ponte allows us to see is a landscape of simple huts, tinder-dry scrub, and ancient rocky outcrops where the brush is collected for charcoal pits.
But a whirring that accompanies some of the sequences that, at first, is reminiscent of an old-fashion cine-camera fed with cellulose film, yet on reflection is probably a gasoline-fed electric generator, is a – like a stage-direction from the wings – reminder that the world is today a global village.
Neither innocence nor savagery
Ponte clearly loves these people and is loved back. That they live lives of such simplicity and with few material goods is neither feted as some kind of quintessential innocence nor presented as noble savagery.
And Ponte’s images – strikingly beautiful at times – reveal her deep sense of place as well as people.
In the best traditions of social anthropology, she aspires to present these people as they are, content within a way of life that may be hard but does not seem too onerous.
The sweet smiles of the little boy – quite the star of this short film – and his affecting wish to do his best and please his mother (and Inês, whom one suspects will become his image of an ideal woman as he grows up) ground the common humanity of these people whose lives are so different from those of us who live in the so-called developed world.
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