A harsh, uncompromising view of Mozambique’s civil war from the perspective of civilians, this film captures the resiliency of youth and the power of storytelling.
Based on Mia Couto’s 1992 novel, Sleepwalking Land follows the adventures of 11-year-old Muidinga, as he wanders the countryside in the company of Tuahir, an older man he calls “uncle”. Muidinga is determined to find his family and recall his past, which he has forgotten after a bout with fever in a refugee camp, but Tuahir wants to leave the past behind and start anew. When the two come across the hulk of a bus—burned by a roaming armed gang who murdered all the passengers—Muidinga finds a diary, the narrative of a young man on a quest not unlike his own: Kindzu, having lost his own family, is searching for Gaspar, the son of Farida, a woman he has met and fallen in love with.
Muidinga takes to reading passages from the diary to the illiterate Tuahir, and eventually both become caught up in Kindzu’s story, dramatized to form a second film within Sleepwalking Land. They make a home in the bus, leaving for daily sorties to forage for food. As Muidinga comes to identify with Gaspar, the narrative proper and the tale from the diary merge.
Sleepwalking Land concerns itself with storytelling at every turn. “You don’t even have a story”, Tuahir tells Muidinga, when the boy inquires about his forgotten past. Tuahir represents the old oral tradition, concerned with narratives that convey eternal verities—like the creation myth detailing the origin of plants and animals that he relates to Muidinga—rather than historical or biographical facts. Tuahir considers Muidinga’s amnesia a blessing in time of war, a chance for rebirth.
Muidinga’s and Kindzu’s stories contrast with and complement each other. Both document the brutality of the protracted civil war that raged in newly independent Mozambique from 1977 to 1992, from paramilitary raids that decimated families and villages, to ethnic and racial discord fanned by the scarcity of resources brought about by the armed conflict. But where Kindzu’s narrative never strays far from realism (a departure from the novel), Muidinga’s tale becomes a synthesis of traditional and documentary storytelling (Director Teresa Prata calls it “Supra-Realism” in an essay from the film discussion guide included on the DVD). Incorporating the magical realism of Couto’s novel, Sleepwalking Land twists the journey trajectory: while Muidinga and Tuahir stay in the bus, every time they read from the diary their surroundings change: trees appear overnight; the landscape transforms from dry to lush. They can hear waves breaking, even though they are far from water. Finally, Muidinga digs a hole and calls forth water that becomes a river that carries the bus to the sea.
Muidinga’s persistence pays off; he achieves the ends of both his and Kindzu’s quests in a conclusion that comes across as credible, despite the magical trappings of the story. When the closing moments of the film complete Kindzu’s narrative, the jarring return of realism makes the film’s depiction of loss and depredation all the more powerful.
Sleepwalking Land—distributed by the Global Film Initiative as part of its Global Lens Collection for 2009—lives up to the Initiative’s mission to promote “cross-cultural understanding through the medium of cinema”. Despite its small scale, it succeeds in offering a complex portrait of a nation in the throes of violently remaking itself. “Those who suffer most in the war are not the ones licensed to kill”, Farida’s aunt observes, and Sleepwalking Land illustrates well the depth of their suffering.
A fact sheet about Mozambique, a brief history of the country, a director’s statement, an essay on the basics of “film aesthetics”, and discussion questions make up the study guide (the standard format for Global Lens titles).
Sleepwalking Land would enhance any African history or film studies classroom. Teachers at the high-school level, however, should screen the film carefully before showing it to classes, not just because of the depiction of violence (tame by the standards of American broadcast television), but because of its frank, albeit brief, consideration of sexual matters. Like Another Man’s Garden, a 2007 Global Lens film (also from Mozambique), Sleepwalking Land addresses teen sexuality head on, and calls for a thoughtful presentation by teachers.