Cinema é Luxo

Untitled (gun number 17A)
Francis Alÿs (In collaboration with Angel Toxqui), Untitled (gun number 17A), 2005-2006 Wood, metal, plastic, film reels, film, 40½ × 13 × 16½". Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

Gabriel Mondlane had failed a test, so when a group of government officials entered his chemistry class at the technical institute and ordered everyone to stand up and give their names, he was sure their purpose was to send him to war. Some of his classmates, after dutifully standing up, promptly fled the room.

It was 1977 in Maputo, capital of Mozambique. The country, just two years into independence, was engaged in conflict with white supremacist Rhodesia. Frelimo, Mozambique’s Marxist ruling party, was sheltering Robert Mugabe and his rebel fighters, which angered the Rhodesians, who would periodically make cross-border raids into Mozambique. In those days, therefore, when the government came knocking at your technical institute, there were three possible outcomes. If Mondlane’s grades had been a bit better, he could expect them to send him to some Eastern Bloc university on a scholarship. There he would learn something useful: boat mechanics maybe, or math. He would learn German or Bulgarian and return to lead Mozambique on its path toward socialist modernity.

Alternatively the government could send him to some rural backwater, where he would teach the alphabet to children under a mango tree. This wasn’t great but it was preferable to option three: dying for the end of white supremacy in Rhodesia. Not that Mondlane didn’t hate white supremacy, but he was 18 years old and had graduated from high school, a feat that was only an abstraction for most black Mozambicans. It would be a shame if after all that he just went and died.

As the government henchmen took his name, he became increasingly certain: because of the bad grade a few weeks ago he would be sent to the border with Rhodesia. He would run after white men who wore ridiculous safari shorts and knee socks and try to kill them with an AK-47. He would step on a landmine or get shot by a Rhodesian troopie. He was as good as dead.

Then the government officials made an unexpected announcement. Tomorrow the students were not to go to school, they were to go to the Ministry of Work, and they were to bring a pen.

He arrived at the site the following morning. There were many students milling around, each carrying his pen. A government functionary greeted them. “Are you the group that was told to bring a pen?” The students nodded. “Come with me,” he said.

He took them to a large room and distributed a so-called psychometric test—matching triangles and circles, determining patterns. The next day, lists were posted announcing who had passed and failed. Although he had no idea what the test determined, Mondlane was pleased to see his name on the list of those who had passed. He briefly imagined himself in Zagreb, wearing a fur-collared coat and holding a beer stein.

He was directed to take a second test, one he could only recall later as assessing one’s aptitude in “general culture.” This, too, he passed. Finally the government told the remaining fifteen students what the tests were for. With an air of great benevolence and gravity, a functionary from the Ministry of Work told Gabriel he would be working in the movies.

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