The modus operandi of Spanish colonisation
As far as I know, ANUNCIARON TORMENTA is one of the few attempts in Spanish cinema at addressing the colonial past of Equatorial Guinea. My concern about this issue began more than ten years ago when I read about the history of anthropology in Africa. The bibliography on this territory – the only one in sub-Saharan Africa ruled by the Spanish authorities – was very scarce. Moreover, very few people in Spain seemed to know or remember that Equatorial Guinea was ruled by Spain until 1968.
Most of the reference texts that deal with this period belong to the Francoist era and helped construct the idea of a benevolent, condescending metropole that peacefully persuaded natives of the kindness of Catholic religion. A closer reading of such texts, as well as research into classified files, tell a different story. A violent one.
The detention and death of Ësáasi Eweera – one of the last Bubi leaders who actively opposed Spanish colonial rule – as recorded in official classified documents, seemed to summarise in a single event the modus operandi of Spanish colonisation in this part of Africa: the bureaucratic maze, the centrality of the religious authorities, and the racist paternalism.
Therefore, most of my field work was focused on searching for native accounts that would somehow counteract those documents. A task that has relied on what Marianne Hirsch called “post memory”, while acknowledging the limitations of the concept.
Apart from the archive and field research undertaken in Spain and Equatorial Guinea, my main effort was to define audiovisual rules or tools during the editing process that would not only highlight the aforementioned conflict between opposing local and colonial versions, but also invite reflection on the very visibility of certain images.
Therefore, I established three paths that would intertwine throughout the length of the film: assessing the status of orality versus writing, identifying historically charged sites, and exploring the materiality of the documents. A great deal of my creative process has thus been experimenting with the relations among them in order to establish the structure and progress of the film.
The editing was guided by such attempts, always keeping in mind what the writer and scholar Justo Bolekia – who kindly offered to read his own poem about Ësáasi Eweera before the camera – once told me after he agreed to take part in the project: “Bubis, including myself, will tell you a lot of things about their collective and individual memory, but they will always keep something for themselves. It's something you have to learn.” (Javier Fernández Vázquez)
Interview with Javier Fernández Vázquez: “It is a matter of analysing the way the truth is built, modelled, changed, or corrected”
Your film deals with the Spanish colonial rule of Equatorial Guinea that lasted until 1968. What is the attitude in Spain towards that period today?
I am afraid that there is no public debate as such. I guess it also reflects a kind of amnesia in Spanish society. Unfortunately, most people in Spain do not even know that Spain had a colony in sub-Saharan Africa. Or they don’t seem to remember it. I must add that, because of the Spanish Civil War and Francoism, historical memory in Spain is a troubled issue where colonialism – especially that of the 20th century, as Spanish territories in Africa were very small compared to the ones controlled by other European powers – is not a key focus.
At the same time, however, I get the impression that of recent this state of affairs has started changing. Thanks to social and political activism carried out by descendants of migrants from Equatorial Guinea, among other racialised groups, there is an increasing awareness of how this colonial past affects the identity of those growing up and living in the metropole. Works by the artist and filmmaker Ruben Bermúdez and the writer Lucía Asué Mbomio, among others, are good examples.
You contrast two different takes on the same story, the detention of the Bubi King Ësáasi Eweera. On the one hand, we have the official documents from the Spanish rulers, and on the other, the oral account of the Bubi people. Historically speaking, the written, official documents had a higher status. Then again, both narratives are fragmentary. How did you go about juxtaposing both in your film? What was the rationale that guided you?
Thanks to Equatorial Guinean scholar José Fernando Siale Djangany, whose academic research on Ësáasi Eweera’s death was a kind of guide for ANUNCIARON TORMENTA, I came across the dispatches and letters written by Spanish officials. Reading them in chronological order, beginning with the epic and adventure novel-like report of the Guardia Civil that detained him and finishing with the wily, carefully crafted letter from the General Governor trying to persuade Madrid about his decisions, one should interpret what it is not written, why suddenly some facts disappear in the subsequent reports – the burning of the village, for instance. Narratives – oral but also written – are fragmentary by definition. It is not a matter of searching for the truth. That would be very naive and very arrogant. It is a matter of analysing the way the truth is built, modelled, changed, or corrected depending on the interest of those who are in the position of writing it.
As my duty, I also felt that exposing the operations of concealment was not enough, that mine should not just be an idle exercise in text deconstruction. Soon enough, I understood that ANUNCIARON TORMENTA should include the rebuttal, the rejections found in those Spanish versions that are circulating around. It was striking to note that when I asked about Ësáasi Eweera in Equatorial Guinea, some people would show me a reference book that reproduced the version given by the missionaries, including the unbelievable episode of the baptism. Of course, other Bubis did not. That's also interesting and another reason why narratives are fragmentary. Orality and memory cannot compete with written texts. The colony offered a single, simplified storyline that “polluted” oral versions that had survived through generations thanks only to the memory of some individuals.
Having acknowledged the fragmentary conditions of both oral and written texts, I kept in mind this statement by Roland Barthes: “The closer a document is to a voice, the less distanced it is from the warmth that produced it and the greater are the grounds of its historical credibility. This is why the oral document is superior to the written document”. I don’t think this position should be universal, but I certainly think that it is very useful in a context of power relations where only one side had the means of producing written documents, as is the case with the death of Ësáasi Eweera and, probably, most of the conflicts caused by colonialism elsewhere.
How did the Bubi collaborate in the making of the film?
During the production process, I was in contact with Bubi associations in both Madrid and Bioko. I already mentioned José Fernando Siale Djanagany, a voice in the film, but there was also Justo Bolekia, the Bubi writer and scholar who agreed to read his own poem about Ësáasi Eweera before the camera and had the amazing idea of bringing his daughter with him. She struggled with the Bubi language but, nevertheless, read the poem. It’s my favourite part of the movie and it was Justo’s idea. He also opened his network of connections in Bioko to me. That’s the reason I could meet the people who speak in the film. It was a matter of trust and respect. Before the final cut, I also met Justo and José Fernando again and they gave me advice on some of the editing decisions. I must also mention the Equatorial Guinean filmmaker Ruben Monsuy, whose point of view about how white artists and scholars dealt with colonial portraits of native people greatly influenced the way I handled the very few images of this kind included in the film.
You work with images that originate from white and fade into white, and also with a layering of images, historic eras, and levels of meaning. Can you elaborate on this visual strategy of (in)visibility?
The white is used a as a tool to connect past and present, archive and current sites. It might be a very simple idea but I enjoyed the idea of overexposing – and manipulating shutter speed, too – as a paradoxical way of making things not more visible but the opposite. The very expression “to shed light” is erroneous. As you add more and more light, the sites become lines, silhouettes, stains – stains that simultaneously resemble the materiality of old photographs. Somehow, it fit with the idea of the impossibility of finding an established, clean, outlined truth while at the same time adding layers of complexity. In the end, as a filmmaker you have to work with images and their manipulation, and I felt that this aesthetic search should support the idea of visibility and invisibility that runs through the film.
(Interview: Annette Lingg, February 2020)