English Title: Sleepwalking Land
Original Title: Terra Sonãmbula
Country of Origin: Mozambique
Director: Teresa Prata
Cinematographer: Dominique Gentil
Art Director: Teresa Prata
Editor: Teresa Prata
Runtime: 95 minutes
Genre: Literary Adaptation, Magic Realism
Volume: African / Nigerian
Not many filmgoers may be aware of Mozambican born director Teresa Prata’s Sleepwalking Land, a film that took her some seven years to complete and is yet to be extensively screened beyond the international film festival circuit. The movie is evidently Ms Prata’s labour of love after she spotted a goldmine in Mia Couto’s novel Terra Sonãmbula (Sleepwalking Land), published in Portugal in 1992 and translated into English in 2006 by David Brookman (Serpent’s Tale, London). Born in Mozambique from Portuguese migrant parents, Mia Couto is now widely recognized as a major writer of African fiction. Extracts from Sleepwalking Land (his first novel) that I read in English indicate a remarkable, powerful literary work, falling within the realm of magical realism. It was indeed a work screaming to be captured on celluloid with the help of special effects and convincing local acting talent. Teresa Prata, who received an international education, grabbed the opportunity to shoot the film in Mozambique and do the special effects in Portugal. Sleepwalking Land won the international FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) award for the best film in competition at the 2007 Kerala film festival, and an award for best director at the lesser known Pune film festival.
The book Sleepwalking Land and its film version are both set during the 15-year civil war that crippled Mozambique (1977-1992). Mia Couto has a gifted philosophical turn of phrase to describe the catastrophe of the war: “what’s already burnt can’t burn again.” The film (as in the book) looks back wistfully at the tragedy of the unrest through the eyes of a dreaming orphan boy and provides a glimmer of hope for the survivors of civil anarchy to cope with what is left to build anew.
The orphaned Muidinga (an endearing performance by an acting novice, Nick Lauro Teresa), who can fortunately read and is even familiar with Melville’s Moby Dick, and Tuahir, his unrelated, illiterate, wise old guardian, (played by non-professional actor Aladino Jasse), are accidentally tossed together by the civil war. The film and the book trace their common will to survive the difficult days. The young boy might have read, or rather heard, the story of Moby Dick, but the name is indelible in his memory. Director Teresa Prata takes creative license in allowing Muidinga to call ‘Mody (sic) Dick’ first, his pet goat and second, the ship in which Farida and Kindzu, the heroes of the manuscript he found in the burnt bus, are squatting. When I queried the director on these details, she stated that she was responsible for these changes and that it was not part of Couto’s book.
A strength common to the book and the film is that the parallel love story of Farida and Kindzu never takes centre stage—the backbone remains the dreams of the young boy under the guiding spirit of the wise old man. Between the two, the viewer of the film is introduced to the problems of Mozambique, of Africa, of any developing country. As in a Greek tragedy, you trudge along a path that gives you a notion of travel and progress, only to return to the same spot, literally and metaphorically. Pretence and dreams, however, make the film move forward. To aid the young boy on his “journey” to his “loving mother Farida” squatting on “Mody (sic) Dick,” the old man devises the means to reach the sea (Indian Ocean) from the bushes of Mozambique. He digs a hole in the ground. Water sprouts and a stream forms. The stream becomes a river and at the end of the river there is the ocean. In the Ocean, the lead characters find the derelict “Mody (sic) Dick” with Farida on it. Obviously, if you demand conventional realism—there is very little that the film can offer. If you accept magical realism as a tool to narrate a realistic socio-political scenario in Africa, then both Mia Couto and Teresa Prata have much to offer and delight your senses.
The viewer gets a glimpse of Couto’s Mozambique: an elderly Portuguese lady chooses to remain in her house even when her servants have fled; a Gujarati shopkeeper family opts to return to India, after their shop is ransacked during the war. There are railroads that have no trains to run on them. But among the ruins, Couto and Prata, show a glimmer of hope in the form of an orphan, learning hard lessons of life in the bush. Ms Prata has proven her capability to adapt an imaginative novel and inspire any person interested in good African cinema. Spot the real Captain Ahab and the real Moby Dick that confront Africa today and you could enjoy the film even more. The description of a civil-war torn country as a sleepwalking land offers fodder for thought, beyond the usual images of violence, poverty and carnage that pervade many films set in Africa, in particular those made in the West.
Author of this review: Jugu Abraham