Atanasio Cosme Nyusi, the Mozambican dancer, speaking in the documentary The Sound of Masks is very sure of his skill. And why wouldn’t the deeply charismatic man be? As he says, he was the best Mapiko dancer for a decade.
Weirdly, his day job is as placid as his dance is vigorous: he works at a library. This dichotomy is mirrored in the film’s framing of ordinary days in the life Nyusi and scenes showing him dancing in a dark lit space. The latter scenes are elevated by artful shots. It is as though the camera recognises that with a mask, the dancer is a different being.
Indeed, masks have a peculiar allure across cultures: from Igboland to ancient Greece. They pop up in Shakespeare, as they do in the Benin Kingdom. Abba Makama has made use of them, as has Christopher Nolan. In Sound of Masks, the dance and masks combine to tell a story of Mozambique, one man’s story and observations serving as an introduction to the history of a country.
Some of the revelations that proceed from the utterances of Nyusi are sometimes not what might be expected or even politically correct. For example, in explaining the origins of the Mapiko masquerade and dance, he says it sprang from an attempt to rebel against the gender hierarchy of his Makonde people.
“Deep down it existed to frighten the women and the children because us here, we are a matrilineal society…so we created Mapiko so we could go beyond the women just a little bit,” he explains. In one scene, a girl shrieks when the masquerade gestures towards her.
She doesn’t flee the scene of the dance though, proof, perhaps, of the existence of an atavistic thrill even in the presence of terror. A link probably exists between lover of horror movies and avid watchers of a masquerade’s spectacle.
Nyusi is quite a performer and through Sara CF de Gouveia’s film, he is not limited to an audience standing on the streets. Cinema has liberated a man whose art is itself the product of unfettered joy.
The Sound of Masks is showing at the 2019 AFRIFF and is scheduled to screen on:
Tuesday 12th November 2019 Time: 4PM Screen: Filmhouse Landmark, Screen 5
Thursday 15th November 2019 Time: 6PM Screen: Filmhouse Landmark, Screen 1