Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Sound of Masks’

Hot Docs ‘19

Courtesy of Hot Docs


The Sound of Masks
(South Africa/Portugal, 70 min.)
Dir. Sara CF de Gouvei
Programme: Artscapes (North American Premiere)

The Sound of Masks is a wicked cool arts doc about the power of dance. It’s a story of resistance and of keeping cultural identity alive through the arts as director Sara CF de Gouvei spotlights one man, Atanásio Nyusi, and his devotion to preserving Mozambique’s anti-colonial history through dance. Nyusi’s passion is Mapiko, a form of masked dance from Makonde culture that involves telling stories and sharing history through artistic expression. The film, one of the better works to screen at the festival with the support of the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Development Funding for African documentary, is an invigorating portrait of cultural survival.

Nyusi knows how to use his charisma and funky moves to engage an audience. Similarly, de Gouvei finds the right visuals to further her subject’s narration and offers moments of poetry as Nyusi reflects upon his work with his dance group Massacre de Mueda, named for a brutal slaughter that claimed over 600 Makonde people. The film draws upon new interviews with Nyusi as well as archival images that chart Mozambique’s history under Portuguese rule, while clips of the Mapiko dances performed before and after the nation’s independence in 1974 chart the art form’s culture of resistance. As de Gouvei and Nyusi convey, Mapiko was banned during the decade-long war of independence because of its anti-colonial spirit and power.

Offering frequent interplays between sound and image, the film might cut to a Malickian glimpse of the trees as Nyusi speaks about how the country and the dance have grown over the years, or the film might contrast archival footage of the Portuguese propaganda machine with archival snippets of Nyusi and his dancers defying their oppressors through Mapiko. The power of propaganda seems to be an overarching theme at Hot Docs this year and The Sound of Masks engages with the power of images to counteract authority with messages of resistance.

The doc also gives fair airtime to Nyusi’s son, Napeto, as they discuss the significance of the dance and their history. The Sound of Masks beautifully evokes the transmission of heritage and culture through some gorgeously shot sequences that put the masks on display and highlight the empowering character of Mapiko dancing. These sequences, lit effectively on soundstages with spotlights on the masks and the dancers’ striking make-up, evoke the spiritual nature of Mapiko that Nyusi describes throughout the film. The doc’s haunting score is equally effective in evoking the voices of the past.

The masks are truly beautiful works of art, and significant artifacts of cultural identity akin to the traditional masks that POV readers may have seen created by the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick in Maker of Monsters. Like Maker of Monsters, The Sound of Masks highlights the legacy of Indigenous art and its ability to fuel a renaissance for a culture that colonial powers tried to erase. The Sound of Masks pays tribute to artists who offer messages of resistance and strength in times of adversity, teaching new generations to keep their heritage alive.

The Sound of Masks screens:
-Wed, May 1 at 8:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Fri, May 3 at 3:30 p.m. at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Sun, May 5 at 2:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.