The paradoxes of The Blue Eyes of Yonta [Udju Azul di Yonta] (1992) begin with its title: a line from an unsigned love letter received by the eponymous, quite evidently brown-eyed protagonist. It’s a symbol of the many things that she and her fellow residents of Bissau don’t or can’t have; the city’s constant power outages acting as obstacles to nearly any conceivable aspect of life. A food wholesaler is forced to dump its load of refrigerated fish; a school class comes to a sudden end; the lights go out at a nightclub. These may merely be the teething problems of development – of a country emerging from colonialism and single-party autocracy into a modern, democratic state – but they also place it in jeopardy.
Against this backdrop of material disadvantage, Yonta is a figure of relative privilege. When not at work in a high-end fashion store, she lounges around at home or goes out dancing; an older businessman friend, Vicente, showering her and her family with gifts from his latest trip to Europe (including, amusingly, a giant belt-watch). In earlier scenes, everything just seems a little too pleasant and inoffensive; but a real edge begins to creep in as the narrative progresses. A neighbour is evicted from her home without warning; young men from the provinces line up at the shipping yards seeking physically demanding, poorly remunerated work; and Yonta’s semi-love triangle between the aspirational capitalist Vicente and younger anonymous admirer starts to unravel at both ends.
Director Flora Gomes presents all of this with a straight, matter-of-fact visual style; the dialogue between characters always thuddingly obvious and expository. But there’s a poignancy to the film’s political and cultural undercurrent; its portrayal of progress capturing both the hope and fear that change can provoke.
Only a few years after The Blue Eyes of Yonta was released – dedicated to the people of the country, and heralding its democratic future – Guinea-Bissau returned to a temporary state of civil war. Such is the trajectory of the world, and of so many of the individuals who inhabit it: two steps forward, one step back.
You can read more about my 50 countries project (and see the list of films and countries) here.