It was no usual journey. During the eighties, ordinary Mozambicans, brought to brink of desperation by the post-independence civil war that ravaged their country from 1977 to 1992, would embark on a nightmarish 700km train ride from the coastline to the inland border with Malawi, escorted by military guard bearing anti-aircraft machine guns against hostile Renamo forces intent on derailing their voyage. Civilians risked their lives voluntarily, in order to carry salt, which was plentiful, and trade it for sugar, which had become scarce and profitable, in order to provide for their families in a time of shortage. But in many instances, especially for women passengers, the evil aboard the train was just as fearful as that which lay in their path.
This story of risking life and limb as a means of survival is chronicled in the stunning new film The Train of Salt and Sugar by Licinio Azevedo, which saw its African premiere at the inaugural Joburg Film Festival last weekend, and which will begin its run at the Bioscope on 11 November. Based on a novel authored by the director himself, it is a profound and moving “African Western”, that brings into focus the value of retrieving the microscopic elements of history on a continent still trying to redefine its place in the grand historiography of the world. The cinema of Africa is often burdened with the imperative to engage primarily with large scale narratives of its past. But history is the sum of its parts, and this mature film engages with an incredible detail of a bigger picture, humanising the past and giving it life and relatability.
Following its world premiere in the prestigious Locarno festival in Switzerland, the film has been received warmly by festival audiences, and the overwhelmingly positive anecdotal response indicates that the film will stand as one of the most notable to emerge from the continent this year.
Mozambique has an illustrious cinematic history, producing some of the continent’s most challenging and progressive films in the seventies and eighties, but the fall of the iron curtain significantly affected the industry’s sources of revenue, and film production in the country has, for the large part, dried up. Feature-length fiction films have become a rare occurrence. This makes The Train of Salt and Sugar even more remarkable, in that it soars above the mediocrity of compromise that often plagues filmmaking in such a resource-starved environment, setting a new high water mark for contemporary Mozambican film. The period art direction is impressive and seamless – quite an achievement given the technical challenge of reanimating an antiquated locomotive, which becomes the films silent protagonist. The cinematography is visually rich and thoughtful, lingering over the Mozambican landscape, amplifying the beautiful but terrifying frontier into which the train much venture. The complexity of the metaphorical language sees the deep pragmatism of warfare collide with animistic beliefs.
The shining star of the film is surely the radiant, 21-year-old, Melanie de Vales Rafael, whose mature performance in this landmark production is sure to set her on the path to an exceptional career. She plays the character of Rosa, a young nurse, who comes to stand as an emblem for the vulnerability, tenderness and strength of the role women play in times of war. Starring in her third film, the young actress got her break in the industry when she was cast alongside Danny Glover in the drama The Republic of Children when she was only 14. Naturally charming, she has chosen to ignore her mother’s wishes for her to follow in her footsteps as an academic (she has a degree in Foreign Affairs and diplomacy) in favour of telling the “amazing stories” that she believes are an untapped resource in her home country, serving as a different kind of ambassador. As a young Mozambican, excavating the past through personal story is a means for her to understand the events that shaped the world into which she was born, ascribing to them the kind of importance they deserve, and which too often go overlooked.
This is indeed one of the continent’s more amazing stories and the film’s astute execution does justice to its many real-life protagonists. De Vales Rafael believes that she is lucky to have been a part of the production: “I got to experience time travel. People think time travel isn’t possible, but I know it is.” The greatest success of this very accomplished film is that every viewer will be just as lucky as she was.