Annecy’s ‘Nayola’ Explores the Struggles of Three Generations of Women in Angola

José Miguel Ribeiro’s feature debut “Nayola,” one of two Portuguese full-length animation pics screening at Annecy Animation Film Festival, portrays the fate of a grandmother, a mother and her daughter – Lelena, Nayola and Yara – in the aftermath of the Angolan civil war.

Nayola searches for her husband, Ekumbi, who went missing during the war. She abandons her daughter, Yara, at the age of only two, who is then brought up by her grandmother, Lelena. By 2011, she has become a rebellious teenage rapper.

The pic jumps back and forth between 1995 and 2011, moving between richly saturated images of the Angolan landscape and grim, gray-toned images of wartime destruction and urban decay, weaving together real-life settings and dreamscapes.

Based on the stage play “A Caixa Preta” (The Black Box), by Angolan playwright José Eduardo Agualusa and Mozambican novelist Mia Couto, the script was penned by Ribeiro’s long-time collaborator Virgilio Almeida.

The €3.2 million ($3.37 million) pic is a coproduction between Ribeiro’s Praça Filmes in Portugal, Belgium’s S.O.I.L. and Luna Blue, France’s JPL Films and the Netherlands’ Il Luster. International sales are repped by Urban Sales. It had development support from the Portuguese film institute (ICA) and from Creative Europe, a €1 million production grant from ICA, support from the Portuguese cash rebate scheme and from Eurimages.

Ribeiro talked to Variety about the film.

What was the initial inspiration for “Nayola”?

I was introduced to this story by my friend Jorge António, who has lived in Angola for over 20 years. He showed me the stage play and initially suggested we make a hybrid film combining animation and live action. We ended up choosing just animation. I was already interested in this universe. My father fought in the colonial wars in Africa, over 50 years ago, which left a profound mark on him. He was a sergeant in Guinea Bissau. The trauma of the war has left a very powerful impact on him. He still has difficulty sleeping and has many nightmares. One of my first experiences with Africa was when I visited Cape Verde after completing my short stop-motion film “The Suspect.” This inspired me to make my 2010 animation film “A Journey to Cape Verde,” and my father’s experience led me to make my 2016 short film “Fragments.” When I went to Cape Verde I realized that my own vision of Africa was essentially Western and colonial. The media tends to transmit clichéd images of the African continent, such as famine and war. When I discovered the generosity of the people and the richness of the culture, with a vibrant human dimension, I fell in love with Africa.  My desire to draw closer to my own family history and to my father, meant that when I read the stage play “A Caixa Preta” I was immediately attracted to it, and wanted to bring my own personal experiences to this project.

What challenges did you encounter for your first feature film, compared with your previous shorts?

One of the biggest challenges was working with many more people. The director oversees the core artistic vision but also has to manage various teams. It was very important for me that they all felt that they were part of their project and brought their own vision. For example, the editors Ewin Ryckaert from Belgium and Job Terburg from the Netherlands played a vital role in the pacing and final structure. Another key challenge was to ensure authenticity for the film, since it takes place in Angola, whereas I have lived most of my life in Portugal. During the development stage I went for a two-week intensive trip to Angola in 2014, with my screenwriter Vírgilio Almeida and producer Ana Carina. We spent time in the capital Luanda and travelled to remote villages where we spoke to people from different tribes. Vírgilio also has family ties to Angola and brought this experience to the script. We returned to Angola in 2019 to rehearse with the actors and record the dialogue, which was a very dynamic, creative period in which the actresses, in particular, introduced many new ideas.

The film has a powerful and eclectic visual style

“Nayola” is essentially a road movie and involves many graphic universes. One of the most interesting things in a road movie is to journey through different landscapes. This also enabled each of the coproducers, who to date have concentrated on animation shorts, to bring their own vision to the film. Some scenes are more impressionistic, others are more realistic and monochromatic. I always felt that the film would need to have a visual style that blends elements of reality and fantasy. I collected photos from the different settings to endow a realistic dimension to some of the animation. We also recorded the rehearsals with the actors, that were used by the designers during the animation. From the outset I wanted to explore a very expressionistic style based on my experiences in Angola, where you feel a presence of intense colors, such as the red earth, or the blood-red sunsets and the powerful aromas. The local people live in close contact with nature. They may see a tree or a stone and see the continuation of someone who has died. In the West, dreams are clearly separated from reality, but in Africa they are interlinked. This duality is particularly evident during times of war – as we are seeing now in the Ukraine. Lives are suddenly upended. You can enter a house or a kitchen that has been frozen and abandoned. This creates a kind of altered fantasy space that I wanted to explore in this film.

Was it a challenge to make a film that revolves primarily around female characters?

Yes! The actresses made a vital contribution to the scenes and the dialogue. I asked a Portuguese illustrator, Susa Monteiro, to oversee the dream sequences, because she has a very distinctive vision that enriches the film. The creative team included many other key women colleagues, such as the assistant director, Catarina Calvinho Gil, and the animation director, Johanna Bessiere, who oversaw all the animation, layout and 3D storyboard.

What was your inspiration for the character of the teenage rapper, Yara?

That was a major turning point in the development of the film. The idea initially came from the arrest of rapper Luaty Beirao and 16 activists in 2015 who were accused of planning a rebellion against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and were imprisoned. Luaty then went on a hunger strike and they were all finally released. Accompanying these events, I realized that I didn’t want to do a film just about the past. I wanted to talk about the key challenges facing Angola today. I discovered Medusa in a YouTube video and asked her whether she would be willing to take on the role of Yara and she agreed. That gave a missing organic element for the script. Elisangela Rita who plays Nayola is a spoken word artist. Vitória Soares, who plays the grandmother Lelena, is a very experienced actress. They all brought their own vision to the film and made sure that the language and street slang used in the film are up to date.

What are your expectations for the film?

Since I have been working on this film intensively for eight years my main hope is that it will circulate internationally! It’s a film above all for adult audiences, but I am very curious to see how adolescents react to the film, especially in Portugal. I don’t know how they will react to this vision of Angolan culture. Very few things reach us in the West about these themes. I hope that the film will offer a window on the rich culture, generosity of the people and the great aesthetic beauty of Angola.


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