Comoros: Kwassa Kwassa

(2015; director: Tuan Andrew Nguyen; writer: Tuan Andrew Nguyen/SUPERFLEX; language: Comoronian; production of Denmark and Vietnam)

Comprising a series of islands in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, Comoros is one of the smallest (and poorest) African nations. It is also a country I despaired of ever finding a film from. Diaspora film-makers such as Hachimiya Ahamada (Ashes of Dreams, The Ylang-Ylang Residence) and Ouméma Mamadali (Baco) have pioneered film-making in the country, but these are difficult to find (especially with English subtitles) now that their debut on the festival circuit is past. So when I saw Kwassa Kwassa listed in my local film festival, I thought – well, close enough. Kwassa Kwassa fails almost all the criteria I have for this blog: it’s a short film (19 mins), a documentary, and produced entirely by foreigners – helmed by Vietnamese director Nguyen and Danish art collective SUPERFLEX. And yet I include it here because it is perhaps the only film I will ever get to see that is filmed in and about Comoros.

The film opens with a boat alone in a blue sea, and a voice that says (in Comoronian): “you will listen to our voice, our voice will take you to the edge of Europe, and beyond. Two islands, same people, one European, and one not…”

‘Kwassa kwassa’ is the local word for the small open fishing boats used to ferry passengers from the Union of Comoros islands to Mayotte, a French territory in the Comoros archipelago and the farthest outpost of the European Union. The journey from Anjouan (where the film takes place) to Mayotte is only 70km, and yet this span of sea is the border between Africa and Europe, and (according to the film, at least) between penury and wealth, between despair and a future. Although only a short journey between two Comoronian islands, it is a journey forbidden by migration law and thus fraught with danger. The film states that more than 10,000 people have died trying to cross.

Against this background, the film focuses on the Anjouan-based makers of the kwassa kwassa boats. Exquisitely detailed montages of the boat-building process are overlaid with narration (by Soumette Ahmed – a local, one hopes?) detailing the geopolitical situation (historical and present), the dangers faced on the crossing and the reasons for attempting it, as well as ruminating on the mythical and incongruous nature of borders, nations, and Europe itself.

An art-film at heart, Kwassa Kwassa is beautifully shot. Detailed close-ups and snappy editing render the messy labour of manually crafting the fiberglass vessels into a work of art, simultaneously showing up the boat-makers’ craft and helping the viewer to experience the process on a tactile level. I was captivated. Also stunning are the aerial shots of Anjouan and the surrounding ocean, both visually effective and a testament to the artistic potential of drone-based camerawork. The clear turquoise of the Indian Ocean as it nears the shore, the glittering indigo of the deep open sea, and the run-down concrete bunkers of the settlement on Anjouan, studded with green explosions of palms.

However, I was less taken with how the film delivered its political and philosophical content – a desperately relevant challenge to conceptions of what and who is ‘Europe’ and the material violence necessary to uphold the demarcation between European and Other. But I felt that the film, in exploring the short and deadly journey between ‘African’ Anjouan and ‘European’ Mayotte, got that message across vividly without the slightly hammy disembodied whisper of the narrator pointing this out, or recounting the myth of Zeus and Europa (the point that Europa herself was an immigrant carried across the Mediterranean was also made, perhaps better, in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Supplicants).

For me, the comparison with the myth was a distraction, and served to focus the film on Europe and its aura of hope and security, bolstered further by the narrator’s description of Mayotte as “a sleeping beauty surrounded by thorns”. Both of these metaphors draw on a European fabular lexicon and make Mayotte out to be a prize, without dwelling on the stories and contexts of Anjouans who are willing to risk everything to claim it. For the film-makers, apparently, kwassa kwassa are not merely a literal means of conducting a dangerous and life-altering journey, they are also symbols of “a carrier of dreams of reaching a better life on the other shore”.

I would have preferred a little less symbol and a bit more detail about the lives of the non-Europeans – the Comoronians and others (the film shows a Vietnamese family also making the journey in the kwassa kwassa), and perhaps the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that have prompted them to take to the boats. Hints are dropped: there have apparently been 20+ coups in Comoros since independence from the French (many, according to the film, orchestrated by the French government); and poverty and injustice – “you can’t eat identity, but identity will always eat you, like the ocean”.

Nor do we get much insight into the motivations of the passeurs – those who ‘traffick’ the emigrants to Mayotte. Are they exploiting their desperate passengers, or are their charges fair compensation for the risks involved? If they have the capability to take themselves to Mayotte, why don’t they remain? And what indeed happens to those passengers that make it to Mayotte? I understand that as a short art film these details might have distracted from the concentrated motifs and parable that the film is going for, but I can’t help wondering if a film more grounded in the lives of the people it depicts would have provided more nuance and insight.

Despite these qualms the film is still powerful, partly through its shared intelligibility with the horrors currently unfolding on the shores of mainland Europe – a comparison the film makes overtly. Effective also is the stunning cinematography, and the contrast between the beauty of the Indian Ocean and its deadly potential. But really, the power is in the harrowing journey the passengers must undergo, and the film wisely gives its last few minutes over to this. The emigrants board the boat and it sets off. The only sound is the waves, the passengers are silent, intent. And then we see the boat alone, white and bullet shaped, on a dark blue sea.

In conclusion, though visually stunning, philosophically it’s an elevated and unsubtle film, with a European focus and little detail about the lives of everyday Comorians.  However, as an example of the incongruous violence that colonialism and current inequalities entail it is a powerful film, and one that makes me want to learn more about what leads a country to divide itself so harshly.

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