Beginnings and Conversations Like Cherries



Everything started in 2006 at the university city of Coimbra in central Portugal when movie directors Zé Miguel and Jorge António met on the jury of a film festival. There they began planning to make a feature film together, set in Africa, combining animation with live-action filmmaking. It was April, and spring was stroking the feathers of a robin redbreast perched on the branch of a poplar tree. The robin flew, and so did Zé Miguel and Jorge.

They met again two years later in Luanda when Camões, I.P. invited Zé Miguel to give a workshop on at the Portuguese Cultural Centre. He shared his experience and passion for this art with Angolan students, filmmakers, and comic book authors. The film that Zé Miguel and Jorge wanted to make again intruded on their conversations, but good ideas are elusive, and they could not catch any. It was February, and summer was drying the mouth of a scarlet-chested hummingbird. The hummingbird flew after a dragonfly, Zé Miguel flew to Lisbon, and Jorge stayed in Luanda tan as always.

In 2011, Zé Miguel returned to the Portuguese Cultural Centre in Luanda, this time to participate in a cinema cycle and give a second workshop. It was summer again, and there was static in the air. This is where cherries came into play. Allow us to explain. Portuguese popular wisdom says that conversations are like cherries, so tasty that we cannot stop eating them, which is why we cannot stop talking. Nevertheless, let us go back to Zé Miguel’s reunion with Jorge. A couple of cherries opened the door to destiny when Jorge showed Zé Miguel a stage play that José Eduardo Agualusa shared with him. The play is entitled “The black box” (A caixa preta), it was written by José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto, and it was not published yet. So, fast-forward nine years into the future when it becomes an integral part of the book “O terrorista elegante e outras histórias“, which brings together three plays written by the two authors.

Zé Miguel and Jorge felt that a movie lived in the play. Jorge would film the night described in the play with actors, and Zé Miguel would animate, image by image, the protagonist’s journey through the interior of Angola. A two-handed film. Live-action and animation.

In the five years that elapsed between meeting Jorge and that tropical afternoon in Luanda, Zé Miguel made three animated short films, one of which, “Journey to Cape Verde” (Viagem a Cabo Verde), was his first cinematographic incursion into Africa, followed by “Fragments” (“Estilhaços”) an autobiographical story about post-traumatic stress disorder from war.

Nevertheless, who are these people? Zé Miguel, Jorge António, José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto? Zé Miguel is a Portuguese animation film director, one of the most prestigious filmmakers of contemporary Portuguese cinema; he lives in the north of Portugal, near Oporto. Jorge António is a Portuguese live-action film director, but he lives in Luanda for over 25 years. He is also the producer of the Angolan Contemporary Dance Company. José Eduardo Agualusa is an Angolan writer. Mia Couto is a Mozambican writer. Both are multi-award-winning writers, and their novels are translated into dozens of languages. Have you ever listened to a piano duet involving two players playing the same piano simultaneously? That is exactly what it felt like, but the stories played by José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto were composed with four hands and two hearts. That was how, in 2010, they wrote “The Black Box”.

If Mozart had written the stage play, he probably would have called it “Sonata for Piano Four Hands in A Major”, where the A corresponds to the scale. However, the A in “A caixa preta” screams at the top of its lungs that it stands for the A in Africa.

So did the screenplay of NAYOLA start with this stage play? Maybe so, or maybe there are even more surprises. Cherries are fruits full of secrets and have two confidant friends, the pomegranates and the mangoes, who are on their way to get into this book, but they are very slow. They slither like a boa constrictor, as they say in Africa.

In 1999, José Eduardo Agualusa published “They are not like us” in the book of short stories “Fronteiras Perdidas, contos para viajar“.

This is what you may call a seed-story, one of those that hibernate in the imagination of writers and that one fine day wakes up. It germinated on the island of Mozambique, a small and beautiful island of coral origin located in the province of Nampula, in the northern region of Mozambique, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The breath of human warmth that the seed-story needed to germinate was the invitation by Trigo Limpo – Theatre Company for José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto to write a stage play for the opening of the 16th International Theatre Festival ACERT on 30 November 2010, in Tondela, in central Portugal. Thus, after eleven years of hibernation, the seed story “They are not like us” germinated with a burning desire to come onto the stage in the play “The black box”.

Therefore, the timeline of NAYOLA began with the short story “They are not like us” written by José Eduardo Agualusa in 1999, which inspired the stage play “The black box” written by José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto in 2010, on which the screenplay for NAYOLA written by Virgílio Almeida in 2018 is based. The roots of NAYOLA’s screenplay are literature and the performing arts.

Moving on, slithering like a boa constrictor.

What does it mean to “move on” in this film? This question has different answers according to each film, but they are excessively long and full of unforeseen events. It means stagnation and joy, advances and setbacks, matches and mismatches, turnarounds and zigzags. It means growth to other geographies and world-building. It means gathering skills, finding partners, and seeking funding. It means hard work, talent and resilience. But most of all, it means finding the film’s soul and protect it as a unique and precious being, gathering the right people behind it and cherishing them. People are always what matter most.

Zé Miguel shared with Ana Carina, his fellow producer at Praça Filmes, located in Montemor-o-Novo in the south of Portugal, his will to develop with Jorge a feature film with a screenplay based on the stage play written by José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto. The adventure would take them to Angola. Ana Carina’s face filled up with smiling freckles. That is where the pomegranates came in 🙂

In June 2012, Zé Miguel, Jorge António, and Ana Carina invited me (Virgílio Almeida) to write the screenplay. I am a scriptwriter and a teacher. I was born in Lisbon where I live. I felt very happy to participate in an adventure of this calibre, but those were not the main reasons why I embraced this project.

Zé Miguel was the first and main reason. I had already written for him the screenplays of Zé Miguel’s four short films: “The suspect”, “Sunday drive”, “Dodu – the cardboard boy”, and “Christmas wrapping paper”. There were fifteen years of friendship, collaboration, and a lot of complicity between us. Our daughters and sons grew up watching our films.

I did not know Jorge, NAYOLA brought us together. He was an aggregating magnet in the film, an essential facilitator – as they say now. He was the initial spark and the permanent link with Angola. We became friends. Later, I wrote the shooting version of the screenplay of his movie “The isle of dogs” based on the book “Lords of the Sand” (Senhores do areal) by Henrique Abranches, an Angolan writer.

The second reason were my Angolan blood ties. At the end of the 19th century, my paternal great-grandparents sailed in a caíque, a small coastal navigation boat with only two masts, along the west coast of Africa until they reached the bay of Angra do Negro, eighteen kilometres from the Namib Desert. There, they settled, my paternal grandparents were born, and then my father. There, I spent an amazing year of my childhood. I only returned to Angola as an adult between 2006 (four years after the end of the Angolan Civil War) and 2009 to collaborate in training courses organized by the Agostinho Neto University and the Portuguese Institute for Development Support.

In early 2013, the Portuguese Institute of Cinema and Audio-visual (ICA) opened the first Open Call of a funding program to support the development of animated feature films. We had one semester to prepare an application to getting funding for the project development. There was no time to lose.

We closed ourselves in a “creative bubble”. In Lisbon, I read and read again, taking note after note, both the short story “They are not like us” and the stage play “The black box”. They were my two legs for many weeks. I knew they would take me somewhere, but I had no idea where.

Then it was time for the four of us to get together. Zé Miguel, Jorge, Ana Carina and me.

The first artistic residency was in December 2013 at the Convent of Salutation (Convento da Saudação), an old convent of Dominican nuns located in Montemor-o-Novo, currently a transdisciplinary structure called O Espaço do Tempo (which can be loosely translated into The Space of Time), hosting an extensive program of artistic residencies. It was 5 degree Celsius, very cold for our southern European standards. Zé Miguel showed us the first sketches of characters painted in watercolours.

We created the necessary documents to apply to the ICA funding program to support the development of animated features:

– A synopsis.

– Characterization of the main characters.

– A graphic dossier with proposals for the characters and backgrounds.

– Declarations of the authors’ intentions on the proposed theme and approach, its importance, originality and adequacy to the cinematographic language.

– Production concept.

– Project development plan and respective timetable.

– Planned steps to raise co-financing and budget.

“Wait just a second”, said the voice on the entry phone. The tiny bells on the convent’s door tolled harmoniously as it opened. “We have visitors”. We feel the presence of Einstein, Jean-Luc Godard and Susan Cain. They appear when we’re exhausted, when the paths we’ve chosen lead us to dead ends, when we’re tempted by spectacular views, or when lunch is wheat bread baked in a wood-fired oven, cured sheep’s cheese, pumpkin jam and lemongrass tea. Wait just a second, the convent bell rang, we have visitors

Einstein is falsely calm. Inside boils with curiosity about everything. He likes to play tricks on friends. Godard is communicative, challenging, loves debate, and is sometimes shockingly spontaneous. Susan is introverted and reflective. She usually comes disguised as a sheep dressed in a wolf’s skin. Einstein walks among Zé Miguel’s drawings scattered on the living room floor, analysing them curiously. Susan smells the aroma of lemongrass tea wafting from the teapot. Godard slides the fingertips of one hand over a sequence of words written on a sheet of paper taped to a wall: mines, maimed civilians, child soldiers, refugee camps. Einstein comments to Susan, “Genius is 1% talent and 99% per cent hard work”. Susan counters, “Persistence isn’t very glamorous, then as a culture, we tend to lionize the 1%, but great power lies in the other 99%”. The two sigh. Godard teases us, “Only 5% out of 10% of cinema should be spectacular”. We stop sensing them. Virgílio hurriedly wrote down Godard’s warning about films, with visual fuss, on a napkin.

We left the convent, rambling about the film’s genre, and went to pick pomegranates. The pomegranate trees were wondering what type of animation Zé Miguel was going to use. Traditional, stop-motion, 3D? So was I … However, the answer to that question would take a while to come.

(1) The Praça Filmes logo,, is a pomegranate, cultivated to germinate and provide with films to be savoured.
(2) Albert Einstein German (1879-1955) – German-born theoretical physicist and founder of the theory of relativity.
(3) Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022) – French-Swiss film director, screenwriter and film critic 1930.
(4) Susan Horowitz Cain (born in 1968) is an American writer and lecturer. She is the author of the 2012 non-fiction book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which argues that modern Western culture misunderstands and undervalues the traits and capabilities of introverted people.