Forms of Echo: Sónia Vaz Borges & Filipa César Draw from a Sense-Memory Educational Legacy

Filipa César & Sónia Vaz Borges, "Mangrove School," 2022 (film still). Courtesy the artists.

Decolonization involves destruction and upheaval, but in equal measures is a process of creation—a radical world-building that imparts not only a political but cultural and ecological heritage. This much is clear to the scholar and educator Sónia Vaz Borges. Her book Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness (Peter Laing, 2019) details such a dynamic by examining the elaborate school system established by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), as part of the armed liberation struggle against the Portuguese colonial regime. Led by the agricultural engineer, political organizer, and poet Amílcar Cabral, the revolutionaries built more than 150 schools between 1965 and 1978 throughout Guinea-Bissau using materials from the environment: pencils of stick and mud, blackboards of sunbaked soil on woven mats, tree-trunk desks ready to transport elsewhere at a moment’s notice. This educational process necessitated the total reappraisal of once-stable concepts and distinctions—between inside and outside, literacy study and combat training, mind and body, self and nature.

Militant Education includes an extended analysis of reports and printed materials produced by the PAIGC, and extensive oral histories that Vaz Borges collected. “We were in the forest,” former student Lassana Seidi describes in one. “You would search for trees, cut the branches. We would make tables out of them. The blackboard would be hung in a tree, and in this way the teacher would give the classes.” Elsewhere, another former student, Marcelino Mutna, describes: “We studied in the mud. When the water came up to here [around the ankle], we would stay there, until we finished the lesson.”

Filipa César & Sónia Vaz Borges, Mangrove School, 2022 (film still). Courtesy the artists.

The imagery in Mutna’s description—a figure within the root structures of the mangroves, feet suspended in cerulean water—is echoed in a scene in the film Mangrove School, which Vaz Borges made in 2022 with the Portugal-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Filipa César. Like the book, the thirty-minute atmospheric essay-film centers around the militant schooling that took place on the tidal coast of Guinea-Bissau, home to one of the densest chains of Rhizophora mangle across the world. Yet, unlike its counterpart, the film mixes archival images and historical information with scenes of loose reenactment. We see a close-up of hands tying together branches with stripped leaves to make a tabletop, or a figure waist-deep in a river methodically catching fish. These affectionate depictions of the everyday activities of the revolution merge with luscious shots of river streams, gnarled branches, and rustling leaves. Texts sometimes appear as intertitles, like an excerpt of Guinea-Bissau’s national anthem, composed by Cabral and adopted in 1974: “fruits of our hands / from the flower of our blood / children sitting in the mangrove.” Taken together, the film expresses an anticolonial education in which the cognitive and sensorial were inseparable. A pedagogy that was materially and philosophically informed by the ecological environment.

Filipa César & Sónia Vaz Borges, Mangrove School, 2022 (film still). Courtesy the artists.

The filmmakers met at a screening César organized in 2012, of the PAIGC film O Regresso de Amílcar Cabral (The Return of Cabral, 1976) at Arsenal in Berlin. Vaz Borges had just moved to the city a few months earlier and was working on her doctoral research at Humboldt University of Berlin that would eventually become Militant Education. “It was a winter night, and I was very lazy to leave the house, but I wanted to watch the film,” she recalls to me in a video conversation with César. After the screening the two artists struck up a conversation that lasted long into the night. Over the next decade they  exchanged research and findings, producing a series of archival screenings, presentations, texts, and films. Their first official coauthored work, Navigating the Pilot School (2016), is a short film on the first jungle school in Conakry, told through the arrangement of children’s building blocks. But as Vaz Borges clarifies, “Our collaboration started years before, that very night we first met.”

This friendship and collaboration shares the mutable, generative quality as the output of their research, of which they offer us multiple translations: the visual and the textual, the academic and the poetic, the archival and the reenactment, the historical and the speculative. Working primarily as a filmmaker who weaves performance, teaching, and text, César often focuses on the legacy of the African liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau—particularly the ways that Cabral’s roles as poet, agronomist, and educator mutually informs the organization of the liberation struggle. The argument that undergirds César’s work—that in Cabral’s thought, the geological is not separated from human history—is thoroughly elaborated in her 2018 Third Text article “Meteorisations: Reading Amílcar Cabral’s Agronomy of Liberation.” She writes: “The soil is not an inert and static ‘ground’ subjected to human agency, but rather has a dynamic relation to human social structures.”

Just as nature and social organization are inseparable in this strain of thought, as are culture and politics. Through the recovery of a corpus of films created by the PAIGC, César’s feature-length film Spell Reel (2017) illustrates this by considering the formation of Guinea-Bissau’s national cinema during the former colony’s struggle for independence. After the National Film Institute of Guinea-Bissau took charge of the decaying reels, César and two of the original filmmakers, Sana Na N’Hada and Flora Gomes, joined the restoration and digitization project. Over the course of a decade, the team organized an educational tour of the archives across the region. The documentation of these screenings, in which organizers introduced the material and audience members reflected on the state of national identity, as formed through collective memory, are shown in Spell Reel, collaged with archival footage of Parliament meetings, crop cultivation, and farming.

“After the war of June 7, 1998,” a caption reads, “the material was subjected to rain, humidity, heat.” As the younger filmmaker Suleimane Biai tells a crowd at an outdoor screening of the film, only about forty of the original one hundred hours of footage were salvageable. One of the ways Spell Reel responds to this loss is through attempting to build on what does exist, finding the cessation points of the original project and revitalizing it. In one scene, the filmmaker Anita Fernandez reads from notes for a film about women that was never completed. The notes are decoupage one-liners, or visual segments to be shot: “first plan: sky with sun, mosaics, palm tree, woman crushing, baby.” “Big close-up, mouth, detail of flesh.” “Naked river. Flowers thrown into the water.” César collages the voiceover recitation with segments from the archives—portraits of women writing and sewing, tender close-ups of faces—as if to complete the film.

Filipa César & Sónia Vaz Borges, Mangrove School, 2022 (film still). Courtesy the artists.

In dealing with history, when should we depart from the goal of fidelity for something more imaginative? The theorist Saidiya Hartman terms “critical fabulation” as a way  of responding to what’s absent in the archive with constructive imagination. This approach may arise out of necessity, as a response to systemic loss or destruction.

As in Spell Reel, in Mangrove School Vaz Borges and César take scant visual materials that have survived time, like photographs, and lift them off the page, bringing them from the “has been” of history to a present “could be.” In these mirage-like scenes, the water gently undulates, the leaves sway with the winds. Consider a grade-school lesson plan, reprinted in the book Militant Education, along with a clip from the film. In the lesson plan, ecological subjects like “the forest is our friend,” “the richness of the vegetable world,” and “the water drop” are seamlessly integrated with political ones like “the armed struggle” and “the foundation of our Party.” In a reimagined scene in the film, the camera pans across a group studying within an enclosed thicket of trees. A sudden mechanical noise that sounds like a spy plane pierces the quiet, and the students’ gazes dart in controlled unison toward the leaves overhead; pencils still in hand, the pupils switch into soldiers. This scene telegraphs the experience of total reorientation (not only cognitively but physically and sensorially) that is only implicit in the lesson plan. But Mangrove School also departs from the concern of factual substantiation. These portraits aren’t mere reconstructions of the historic events, but something else altogether—interpretations, commemorations, made through film’s use and interplay of sight and sound, a vivid application of Hartman’s methodology. “It’s important for the film to have other forms of echo,” César tells me over the video call. Vaz Borges adds: “Memory is already a kind of fiction. It is a mode that, for me, holds more truth than any kind of historical narrative.”

Mangrove School has received positive reception since its premiere in 2022, yet the filmmakers don’t particularly seem concerned about its participation in exhibition and film-festival circuits. More pertinent is access, demonstrated by the fact that Mangrove School and Navigating the Pilot School are both uploaded to YouTube. In July 2023, Vaz Borges screened Mangrove School not as a discrete event but as part of a public course she taught at the People’s Forum in New York City called “Pan Africanism and the Struggle for Our Future.” The approach to film as a pedagogical tool also recurs in Spell Reel, epitomized by one striking scene: at one of the outdoor screenings, people gather around a makeshift theater—a taut canvas stretched over a wire frame reinforced with cinder blocks, erected in an open square. It’s dusk, a rare transitional moment when it is both sufficiently dark to see the projected image yet light enough to make out the surroundings. Both instances evoke the relational politics of militant, anticolonial cinema that radically departs from Hollywood or European arthouse-theater models, in which the screening is not an end in itself but a precursor for dialogue and collective action.

That César and Borges’s practice draws from the African liberation movement not only in subject but in method shows what a total integration of politics and craft can look like. It was always the goal to approach the research as something fertile, like soil, Vaz Borges says, breeding “one book, to one film, to one article, to another film. Sprawling out, like a mangrove itself.”

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