Entangled perspectives of war

COLONIALISM / An intimate portrait of Portugal's colonial war from those who lived through it.
Country: Portugal

A peaceful, glowing with the sun, bucolic surroundings somewhere in Portugal, where houses provide salutary shadow, look as if time has stopped. However, the seeming tranquillity hides layers of a turbulent, mid-20th century past that still carve psychological and social environments in an interesting, dynamic and well-structured documentary feature debut, shown at the MDOC – Melgaço International Documentary Film Festival, devoted to the Portuguese colonial wars in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique between 1961 and 1974.

Starting with the personal family history of the uncle, who doesn’t want to talk about his war experiences, now over 50 years ago, director Sabrina D. Marques embarks on a journey to answer a question about the mechanisms of legitimizing the colonial war unleashed contrary to the spirit of the time, when all the European powers were liberating their colonies. The 13-year-long, bloody colonial war, fought simultaneously in three different countries, required the mobilization of over one million young men. As Portuguese historian Rachel Varela points out, the prolonged fighting and strong African liberation movements were the direct reason for the 1974 military coup d’état that overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship and led the way for the Carnation Revolution and deep political transformation afterwards.

The Photo-Cines, a film by Sabrina D. Marques
The Photo-Cines, a film by Sabrina D. Marques


The Photo-Cines presents, however, only the major points of wide historical background, concentrating instead on systemic, behind-the-scenes activities of the Portuguese regime aimed at securing social and political consent for the war. Snippets of 1961 propaganda films use Leni Riefenstahl’s visual poetics to convey the Portuguese colonial army’s sense of order and determination in fighting for the country’s «safety» and «integrity.» The «objective» photographic reports, disseminated by newspapers, photo exhibitions, and flyers in tens of thousands of copies, detail the war’s innocent victims and atrocities. In the face of strict military censorship and restrictions on movement in the areas of war, the photos and films were taken by a specially trained group of filmmakers-soldiers – the photo-cines – from the Division of Photography and Cinema of the Army Cartographic Service. They were the best of several classes of mobilized young men that volunteered for the service, hoping they could avoid going to the front lines. After the extensive courses in cinematography, photography, and history of cinema, it, however, turned out that they were the only ones authorized to cover the events in military zones of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.

Many of them were against the war, and today they talk about it reluctantly, careful not to disclose too many details. During their front-line service, they often made footage of staged events far from the actual fighting. They also organized film screenings for soldiers and collected Christmas postcards from soldiers to their families. Sometimes the war was coming to their lenses unexpectedly, as in a found footage of a missile explosion. Then the anonymous military officers’ censorship was taken over to whom they were sending all the film materials. But, as the final statistics of the division’s activities stated – out of 300,000 photographs processed in a laboratory, 12,000 were archived.

Adequately chosen, structured and edited by the military censorship, films were then forwarded to the RTP weekly reports on the war. RTP was also shooting its own reportages, but these were limited to the area military allowed them to film. The final cut and edit of all the materials were done by RTP back in Lisbon. The ways of reporting the events to the general public changed throughout the war years. The initial heavy use of shocking photos was replaced with dry, short footnotes informing on a number of deaths with no photos at all. Despite a growing number of killed and wounded, in the official news reporting, there were always deaths due to illness or accident, never due to actual fighting.

the seeming tranquillity hides layers of a turbulent, mid-20th century past that still carve psychological and social environments…

A changing world

The 1974 coup d’état and the Carnation Revolution ended the infamous last effort of the European colonial power. The world was changing, and photography and news reporting were changing with it. Although there was a rapid wave of reporting, the focus was on a current day; over 90% of the colonial war footage was destroyed in the fire that broke down in the Army Cartographic Services’ film archives in 1975. The Photo-Cines, although composed of many archival materials, and focusing on past events, is hence not a history film. Instead, it is an exercise in an active attempt at reconstructing history by a new generation from scattered fragments, single images, unclear information, intended misinformation, official propaganda, the discourse of survivors, and the vast gaps of silence, emanating from individual as well as institutional sources. It is an attempt at making sense of a world that, although seemingly passed, is still actively determining many people and their ways of thinking. It is a subjective effort based on objective but dilapidated materials prone to various interpretations and contextualizations, from the moment of their creation to the final reading. What we can see in this effort is something more than a basic knowledge of historical facts – there is a psychology of war trauma, games of ego, military enforcement on the individual and social plane and its long-term consequences, the machinery of the authoritarian state, mid-century photo techniques, and most important of all: Faces of anonymous soldiers, young man, forcing themselves to keep calm and sending warm greetings to their families. These many layers of entangled perspectives, aims and resources mirror a process of forming an understanding and reaching a common knowledge about the war that the new Portuguese generation is currently undergoing.

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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