In Portuguese with English subtitles, running time 55 minutes
Written and directed by Nuno Miranda, this 2020 film uses its focus on a homeless eccentric, known locally as Kmêdeus (literally translatable as “Eat God”), to explore the culture and history of the West African archipelago of Cabo Verde, which is home to some 500,000 people.
The enigmatic Kmêdeus lived on the island of São Vicente, Cabo Verde’s principal port. Through interviews with people in his home town of Mindelo, an affectionate portrait is built up of a well-known local character. Bedecked in the contrasting religious imagery of a Star of David and a Christian cross, he carried a tin can and would apparently revel in telling people that he “ate God with rice”.
While many people who met him remember him as mentally ill, others consider him to have been something closer to a philosopher or a street and performance artist. The film challenges us to avoid reductive labels applied to “those we call crazy”. I’d have liked to have been told more about the life of Kmêdeus, who we learn “must have had a sense of humour as he attempted to kill the President” (no more information is forthcoming!) and who met a “violent end” (not expounded upon), in contrast to his apparently largely peaceful life. He actually sounds to have been hugely vulnerable, and I question the philosopher label!
We are shown extracts of a 2008 piece by the contemporary choreographer and dancer António Tavares, based on the life of Kmêdeus, which inspired the film itself. From here we are introduced, through the course of three distinct acts and archive photography, to a wider examination of the importance of representative art, music and film in Cabo Verde, and the power of mythology and the imagination. Notably, the film highlights the significance of the euphoric annual carnival, and the opportunity it provides for people to cast off, if only temporarily, their everyday identity.
In focusing on the multiple interpretations of Kmêdeus’s life, he becomes a sort of metaphor for the paradoxes and inconsistencies in Cabo Verdean identity, and showcases the multiplicities inherent in the islanders themselves, as well as the pervasive impact of their national history. Edouard Glissant, best known for academic theories focusing primarily on the Caribbean and the so-called New World experience, is quoted in the film (“a man on an island knows of life abroad”): thus, the life of an islander is not necessarily closed off and insular. Indeed, the inhabitants of this tiny country appear to be incredibly cosmopolitan and creative. Notably, too, Glissard’s Caribbean Discourse sought to interpret the experience of islanders (not specifically Cabo Verdean islanders) as infinitely varied, rather than encapsulating a fixed, homogenous meaning imposed by the history of colonization.
The organizers of the Africa in Motion film festival (which showed the documentary this November) noted that the film (which was made in conjunction with the Cabo Verdean film collective Negrume) ultimately becomes “a search for the roots of one of the oldest Creole communities in the world”. Doing a bit of research after watching the film, I learnt that until the 15th century, when Portuguese settlers discovered the islands, the archipelago was completely uninhabited. The islands finally achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, but due to their isolated location, as well as the population’s primarily mixed heritage, the inhabitants can inevitably feel, both literally and figuratively, somewhat cut adrift from the rest of the continent and the wider world.
Although let down somewhat by poor subtitling, this was a interesting insight into Cabo Verde, a country about which I knew very little, and a thought-provoking and often beautiful film. I really fancy visiting one day…