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90 minutes, 1991, Guinea-Bissau Director: Flora Gomes in Criolo with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
Several films in the Library of African Cinema - Hyenas, Zan Boko and Allah Tantou - are set against the backdrop of the shattered dreams of African independence. But Udju Azul di Yonta (The Blue Eyes of Yonta) is one of the few recent African films to make the disillusionment of the revolutionary generation its primary subject - and offer a glimmer of hope for the future. Flora Gomes (born 1949) is a member of the generation which fought for Guinea-Bissau's independence. This director's first feature film, indeed the first feature film made in Guinea-Bissau, Mortu Nega (Those Whom Death Refused), commemorates that nation's arduous independence struggle, while hinting at its subsequent bureaucratization. Udju Azul di Yonta can be seen as a continuation and commentary on this film.
In Udju Azul di Yonta, the most compelling character is Vicente, a disenchanted hero of the independence struggle who has only grudgingly adapted himself to post-revolutionary society. He is a figure with whom many disappointed Western '60s activists will identify. As "Comrade Boss" of a fish warehouse, he continues to work for the development of his country against staggering odds. A power outage (a recurrent motif in the film) has spoiled an entire catch of fish and the fishermen and fishmongers are furious. Corruption and kickbacks have become rampant in the city; unbridled free market capitalism is triumphant. Vicente confesses to an old comrade, "We thought the revolution was for everyone, but it is only here for a few of us." Despairing at his own compromised ideals, he exclaims, "Vicente no longer exists; I am a vulture," devouring the carcass of his revolutionary hopes.
Vicente is so despondent he doesn't notice that Yonta, the beautiful daughter of two of his old comrades, is infatuated with him. Yonta represents the generation which has grown up since liberation whose heads are full of dreams of fashion, music and European affluence. In fact, one of the guilty pleasures of this film is noting how revolutionary culture has given way to stunning couture.
Yonta, for her part, is unaware of the attentions of a third character, Zé, a poor student from the country. He anonymously sends her love poems cribbed from a book written about a Swedish girl. One reads, "In the cold long nights when snow caresses your windows...the blue of your eyes is the immensity of the sky over my life." The younger generation's incongruous dreams give the film its striking title.
Flora Gomes identifies a fourth important character, "quite an unusual one, who gradually changes everything, the motion and color of the film: it is Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, where I have always lived...For fifteen years, while I reluctantly grew older, I saw Bissau recovering its youth almost every day. I heard it switching to another language, another dream, another aim."
A reluctance to abandon old dreams results in the tragi-comic rejection of present opportunities. A distraught Vicente vilifies Yonta: "You have replaced ideals with clothes and night clubs." And she retorts: "It's not my fault if your ideals are spoiled. I want to be free to choose - isn't that what you fought for?" The film doesn't end, however, with an endorsement of Yonta's fascination with Western consumer culture. In the penultimate scene, Zé finally encounters Yonta; he angrily demands his poem back saying it doesn't make sense anymore. He warns Yonta that time will pass her by if she doesn't accept the opportunities offered by the real world.
The ending of Udju Azul di Yonta is one of the most unexpected in recent African cinema and can justifiably be described as "Felliniesque." The high society of Bissau gathers for an absurd European style reception around a swimming pool, bathed in an otherworldly azure glow. Then in the harsh light of the morning after, they sleep slouched in their deckchairs, hungover with history, while fishermen vainly cast their nets in this artificial pool and Vincente sits dejectedly on its edge. Suddenly, Yonta and the children of Bissau begin to dance around the pool, past their dreaming elders and into an uncharted future. And perhaps we recall the film began with these same children rolling inner-tubes numbered with each year since independence through the streets of Bissau: a striking image of history's anarchy and unpredictability.
Udju Azul di Yonta can, in a sense, only end by leaving the world of narrative for that of symbol. The director cannot and will not try to dictate history's direction. All that remains is the faith that the young will come up with dreams of their own, dreams which, Flora Gomes hopes, will not hold them hostage, but inspire them to make something real in the real Africa all around them.