Friday 7 October 2022

Nayola (José Miguel Ribeiro, 2022)

Utrecht-based production company il Luster are one of the backers of animated feature Nayola, which screens at the London Film Festival today and on Sunday.  In addition to il Luster's involvement, Nayola is co-produced by two Belgian companies, S.O.I.L Productions and Luna Blue Films, both of whom are based in Brussels.  Yet despite its financing, Nayola's story takes place far from the Low Countries, in Angola—a country that, upon independence from Portugal in 1975, was ravaged by a decades-long civil war.  While Nayola is an animated film, it is by no means suitable for young children, as it includes some hard-hitting scenes as it delves into the source of the trauma still felt by many Angolans today, 20 years on from the end of the conflict. 

José Miguel Ribeiro's film, which adapts José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto's play A caixa preta ("The Black Box"), focuses on three generations of women: grandmother Lelena, her daughter Nayola, and Nayola's daughter Yara.  The action flits between 1995—when Nayola abandons the infant Yara in order to search for her husband, who's gone missing in combat—and 2011, when the teenaged Yara attempts to propagate her rap music, which proves quite tricky, given that she's now living in a fraught post-war Angola where the authorities crack down on anyone they view as subversive.  The arrival of a mysterious visitor, whose face is obscured behind a menacing jackal mask, only serves to increase the tension.  That said, Lelena doesn't appear to be too fazed by this uninvited guest—despite the fact that he's armed with a large machete—and sets about providing him with some much-needed sustenance while police prowl the streets outside.     

Throughout the film, a variety of animation styles are employed, depending on when and where we are in the story.  Given the attention to detail here, it is not difficult to see why Nayola ended up being a five-year project for José Miguel Ribeiro.  It is clear that a huge amount of care and effort has gone into the movie, which attempts to get its message across via a method we wouldn't normally associate with films centring on national trauma; in this sense, it recalls Ari Folman's recent Where Is Anne Frank, an elegant, heartbreaking picture which used animation to explore the life and horrible fate of its title character.  As with Nayola, Folman's film wasn't scared to switch between reality and fantasy as it brought Kitty, Anne's imaginary friend, to life in order to retrace the story of the girl who had created her.  But unlike Where Is Anne Frank, Nayola can't keep all the balls in the air, and the result is a work that suffers from a lack of clarity.

While the standard of animation can't be faulted, the film becomes progressively less interesting, and although the appearance of the jackal character briefly livens things up, the muddled developments in the story fail to build on the arresting opening stretch.  Nayola frequently feels both confused and confusing, and one can't help but wonder if Ribeiro and his screenwriter Virgílio Almeida might have done better to focus on just one of the timelines featured here.  There are many stories to be told regarding Angola's troubled history during both the colonial and post-colonial eras, but with Nayola José Miguel Ribeiro has made some baffling choices which translate to a muddled, unsatisfying experience, albeit one that is always very easy on the eye.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI