The Battle of Tabato (A Batalha de Tabato): Berlin Review

A Batalha de Tabato Still - P 2013

A Batalha de Tabato Still - P 2013

Haunting West African drama from Portuguese director.

First-time feature director Joao Viana explores music, magic and post-colonial angst in Guinea-Bissau.

BERLIN -- The ghosts of West Africa’s colonial past haunt this fable-like drama, one of the more offbeat premieres at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. Much like Tabu, a prize-winner at last year's Berlinale, The Battle of Tabato finds a Portuguese film-maker reflecting on his nation’s imperial legacy in Africa using stylish monochrome visuals and a playful fairy-tale narrative. But unlike Tabu director Miguel Gomes, self-produced first-timer Joao Viana tells a contemporary story here, and features native Africans as his main protagonists.

The Battle of Tabato takes place in Guinea-Bissau, where smartphones and laptops co-exist alongside ancient traditions and magic rituals. There are hints of early Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch in the film’s deadpan manner and elegantly spare black-and-white look, while the soundtrack is woven with the sinewy, seductive, polyrhythmic music of West Africa. Viana’s low-budget labor of love should interest future festivals, especially those concerned with African and post-colonial themes. But the cryptic characters, fragmentary story and heavily localized creole dialogue will make it a tough sell to overseas markets.

The film opens with a hypnotic voiceover calmly summarizing West Africa’s 400-year history of artistic, technological and educational advances under Mali’s Mandinka empire while Europe was still emerging from the Dark Ages. But the elusive, elliptical story that subsequently unfolds is no worthy exercise in post-colonial guilt. Returning to Guinea-Bissau from European exile, Imutar (Imutar Djebaté) is met by his daughter Fatu (Fatu Djebaté) on the eve of her marriage to musician Mamadu (Mamadu Baio). Their conversations are cordial but oddly stiff, with Imutar clearly still traumatized by his involvement in the country’s civil war decades before. The horrors of the past hang heavy in the air.

As father and daughter drive to the wedding ceremony, tragedy strikes. At this point the film tips over from stylized naturalism to full-on magical realism, shamanic wise men, ghostly apparitions and a climatic musical exorcism ceremony involving the ancient wooden balafon – or West African xylophone. Punctuated by red-tinted screen flashes, the finale is heavily symbolic and somewhat alienating to anyone unfamiliar with the cultural rituals being depicted. Viana combines a strong eye and rich subject matter in The Battle of Tabato. Hopefully he can shape these impressive elements into something more accessible in his future work.

Venue: Berlin Forum screening
Production company: Papaveronoir Films
Producer: Joao Viana
Cast: Imutar Djebaté, Fatu Djebaté, Mamadu Baio
Director: Joao Viana
Screenwriter: Joao Viana
Cinematographer: Mario Miranda
Editor: Edgar Feldman
Music: Pedro Carneiro
Sales company: Papaveronoir Films, Lisbon
Unrated, 78 minutes