Rosa is an unbossed woman; from beginning to end, it’s hard to imagine what or whom she fears. On the streets, she markets herself, “a first class service with third class prices.” On the night of her abduction, she is dragged from a motel, wearing her red miniskirt and floral printed top (not unlike the woman in Ricardo Rangel’s infamous photograph, often referred to as ‘The Last Prostitute’). On that same night, Luisa is wearing a tight-fitting yellow mini-dress with black polka dots. Before she left home, her mother criticized the dress. Her retort was cool and firm, she doesn’t want to dress as if she’s been fetching water all day or sewing clothes for a husband. Suzana has no one at home to defend herself against. Her two children are left in the care of a neighbor each night that she leaves for her work as a dancer. When Suzana encounters the abducting soldier, she tries to argue her release on grounds of her stardom. When we meet Margarida and Commander Maria João, we know little about their paths to the re-education camp, only that Commander João has served her country well in the fight for independence and that both women are engaged to be married.
These are the ensemble cast of characters we meet in "Virgin Margarida," a 2012 film from veteran filmmaker Licínio Azevedo. They are amongst the dozens of women with whom we journey to Mozambique’s re-education camps of the 1970s and 80s. Through subtle but pointed foreshadowing Azevedo moves us toward an ending that is tragic on many fronts.
At the screening I attended, I spoke with a woman who was mentally preparing herself for a heavy story of women and war. Because I had forgone the trailer and any detailed synopses or reviews, I didn’t think to approach the film in any particular way. Neither of us could have anticipated the film’s humor – most of which is rendered by Rosa (played by Iva Mugalela). In one instance, Rosa disobeys the commanders and her arms are strapped to a log of wood as punishment. Standing on her own two feet, her crucifixion is incomplete. The commanders call it the ‘Airplane.’ Later that night, Rosa, with arms outstretched, “flies” around the room, imitating the sounds of something like a fighter jet. The other women laugh; the audience laughs. So often is humor placed in near proximity to trauma, that sometimes the audience doesn’t know their boundaries.
In a widely circulated still of the film, a casual observer sees uniformed women laid out against the ground in formation. Their bodies are shaped like X’s, arms and legs extended away from center. On a large screen, the same observer can see that the women’s feet and hands are tied to stakes; their eyes are forced (by the threat of violence) to remain open towards the sun. There is no humor to relieve this instance of torture. The audience is offered no reprieve; instead questions surface out of our own ignorance. Was this technique recounted by a woman who had actually been imprisoned at the camps? How long were women held in these camps? What was life like after release? How are these stories told within the context of Mozambique’s struggle for independence?
In October 1981, Samora Machel publicly addressed the injustices of the program that was intended to re-educate citizens of the newly independent Mozambique. According to Machel, people were imprisoned for re-education because of “the harm they caused to society.” They were not to be punished, as is the way of capitalism, but to become anew in a program seeking to eliminate the causes of criminal behavior. Even in transcription, Machel is eloquently sincere in his commitment to nationalism and the liberation of his people. It is easy for a reader to be naively gripped by his words.
The re-education camps began in 1974, months before Mozambique declared its independence from Portugal. The camps initially imprisoned women perceived to be prostitutes, i.e., any woman living and working independently of a man. The program then spread to include anyone deemed a criminal, drug addict, thief, vagrant, or political dissident. In his 1981 speech, Machel was honest in his assessment of the camps. Reports showed that there was a lack of productivity, illness, starvation, and executions of prisoners. By the time of his speech, Machel had ordered hundreds to be released, shut down at least one camp, and had camp authorities held accountable for abuses of power. Though embarrassed by the conditions, Machel insisted that re-education was necessary for complete liberation, “our policy puts man as the main factor and we believe in the transformation of man.”
More than a decade before "Virgin Margarida," Licínio Azevedo released a documentary entitled "A Última Prostituta" ("The Last Prostitute"). It was during interviews for the documentary that Azevedo first heard stories of a young girl named Margarida who was imprisoned in the camps. She was a virgin; her imprisonment was a mistake. Her story was compelling enough for Azevedo to create a fictional drama.
With superb cinematography and deft acting, "Virgin Margarida" deserves all of the prizes for which it has been nominated and awarded. It is impossible to watch Sumeia Maculuva, in her role as Margarida, asserting her innocence through heaved tears and screams without feeling gutted. The story is compelling. It works in service to a history that’s been silenced, obscured by the stories of imprisoned men and by pro-nationalistic views of independence. And as another reviewer has noted, it also serves as a critique of Mozambique’s leaders in power today. However it is Margarida’s story that we are supposed to be most concerned. Azevedo makes Margarida’s trauma most tragic, most deserving of the audience’s discomfort. We have journeyed with all of the women but our lasting image is of Margarida. She is a virgin and thus the only purely innocent woman among them, the one least built for resilience. As we are led to ponder Margarida’s fate, the film ends abruptly.
Nina Yeboah is a Chicago-based writer and black art enthusiast. She's also leads Chicago Reading Africa, a book and film discussion group.