Carlos Conceição • Director of Tommy Guns
“It’s all about breaking down walls and old ideas”
by Marta Balaga
- The Angola-born Portuguese director isn’t writing off the past just yet
Tommy Guns [+see also:
interview: Carlos Conceição
film profile] is not another historical drama: Carlos Conceição starts from the 1970s conflict between Portugal and Angola but he doesn’t stay there, proving that old problems can become new again if we are not paying attention. We talked to the filmmaker in Locarno, where the film just premiered in competition.
Cineuropa: There are many surprises in your film, but one point that you seem to be making is spot on – there are people out there who feel nostalgic about war.
Carlos Conceição: It’s true in so many cultures and it’s just scary. We keep saying that these voices went away for a while, but it’s not true. They were always here. In Portugal, this war against the independence of the colonies feels very recent. It’s like a ghost that’s still there, the elephant in the room. But you can easily go from it being a taboo, something that people deny, to an actual murder. Actor Bruno Candé was killed in the street by an old white man who wanted him to “go back to his country” [the killer served in the military during the war in Angola]. You never expect these people to act on their retrograde words, but all they need is an opportunity and it happens.
There are conflicts and conflicts: those that people have seemingly made their peace with and those that still pester. Colonialism falls into that second bag, I guess?
I am from the first generation that can finally address it and look at it from a certain perspective. Now, instead of making a historical film about events that have really happened, I wanted to create an allegory. This situation could mirror the experiences of the people who fought in the Vietnam War or in Afghanistan, who went to Syria, Iraq or who are in Ukraine, of course. Like this colonel says at one point in the film, there are many wars and all are the same. They all come from the same place, from hatred and resistance to evolution, this thirst for conquest and power over something and someone. It keeps happening, again and again, and we should have an answer to it by now.
It's interesting you would mention Vietnam because once you show soldiers left alone in a forest, going crazy with boredom, many cinematic references come to mind.
When I was a kid there was a civil war in Angola, so many other conflicts everywhere, and I have this memory of people just trying to get on with their lives. I don’t know a single person that would willingly walk in the direction of conflict, unless following orders. People have this tendency to sit and wait, and that’s what happened to Portuguese soldiers. So many of these people were never in Portugal, they were born in the colonies. It’s as if they fought against the independence of their own country!
I was curious about interactions with women in your film. They all turn sour, with one encounter being especially shocking. Why?
I thought about this idea of the motherland and I always saw it as a female-shaped goddess. In Portuguese culture, but not only, there is this presence of women as matriarchal figures. I was looking for different depictions of that in the film.
This violence towards women, sometimes children, is always prevalent during war. And it has never faded. In Africa, someone is raped every three seconds, according to a study I read. I couldn’t think of anything worse and we don’t talk about it. We talk about a new war, US policies, and yet this has been going on for decades. The three women in the film, they are three archetypes. There is the religious woman who represents colonialism to me, a European voice in an African country saying that her God is the truth. Then there is the well-meaning girl who doesn’t expect evil and represents this territory that has been taken advantage of. To me, that’s the most violent twist in the film, based on the story I heard. The third one is like a character from a Greek tragedy. She has the body of a sinner, as Christians would put it, but is the ethical force that brings the revelation of truth. It’s all about breaking down walls and old ideas, which is something we should be doing every day.
Your soldiers are very young, you underline it in the film. Did that make it easier to manipulate them?
Portugal, in the final stages of the colonial war, would engage children aged 14 and 15. In the case of these characters, they have been “preserved” in their child-like state, with few memories of their previous life or their mothers.
When describing this particular type of dictatorship in Portugal, some would call it “watered-down fascism.” I don’t think it was this watered-down. There was no freedom of speech, no access to education, no equal rights for women. There was racism – there still is. Are these old ideas really as gone as people would like to think? Obviously not. Some think we need to shine a light on the new and keep other things in the past. But we should question the present instead, because some of them are still happening.
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