Miguel (aka Tibars aka Djon África) lives a simple life with his grandmother in Portugal. He works in construction, has a girlfriend and even helps his friend from time to time with a distraction tactic routine at clothing shops that includes layering up, dancing and generally playing dumb. He does not, however, know his father, neither personally nor anecdotally. He has never really contemplated searching for him either until a passerby on the street points out his strong resemblance to someone who may or may not be his father.
This brief exchange is the catalyst that prompts Miguel to, finally after all these years, go in search of his birth father. All he knows is that he lived, and perhaps still resides, in Cape Verde, so, with little information to go on (outside of a name and a town), he is off – not only just to find an unknown parent but also to his partial homeland, as he’s never been to the former Portuguese territory off the northwestern coast of Africa.
Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra present Miguel’s pilgrimage as a sort of docufiction hybrid, broadly concealing the border between the two throughout, never fully revealing whether Miguel’s interactions are staged or authentic or some combination of the two. A large majority of his time spent in Cape Verde consists of engaging with the local population, mostly some mixture of gathering information and/or drinking.
It is through these minor connections that Reis and Guerra are able to build a patchwork portrait of the islands, its people and its culture – so much so that the land and its people become the film’s main focus as Miguel is regularly repositioned into a supporting role.
It is easy to see why, though. Nearly every composition that Reis, Guerra and cinematographer Vasco Viana conjure up in the process promptly announces the beauty of the island with one striking landscape after another during Miguel’s travels. And it is not just the vibrant coastlines; the film showcases the area’s rolling hills and arid stretches of land just as lovingly as the rest, as if every pocket of space shown has a story to tell and more importance than the discovery journey at the center of the film.
In the initial stages of the trip, however, the main facet of Cape Verde’s culture that is explored is its national drink of choice, grogue. It appears to play an integral role in society as it shows up during celebrations, mourning periods and especially during spells of relaxation. More importantly, it appears to have quite the pull on Miguel, a predilection he has apparently inherited from his father. As the saying goes, “pure grogue heals all diseases; shit grogue turns you into an enemy of your own family.”
As the partying takes its toll on Miguel’s attention and concentration (as well as his funds), it is abandoned for a taste of the old world – simple (yet labor-intensive) living, tending to a host of livestock without a hint of prior experience. He is a fish further out of water, living with an elderly woman who enables him to get a glimpse of what life is like on the island. It also affords Miguel the opportunity to reflect upon his time in Cape Verde as well as contemplating his next steps with help from the wisdom he’s able to glean from his gracious, charming host.
One of the aspects that makes Djon África such an enjoyable experience, outside of the aforementioned inherent beauty found everywhere in the landscapes of Cape Verde, is the central presence of Miguel Moreira, the laid-back Rastafarian whose ambitions never seem to rise above simply enjoying the present. He is a charismatic and humorous individual who keeps the proceedings light, relatively self-centered, yet in an inoffensive, harmless way. One could say he is respectfully selfish, in a sense. He’s just easily distracted by “good times,” detouring his intentions and distracting him from his ultimate goal, as if experiencing good times were his baseline, default goal one he struggles with reprioritizing.
Reis and Guerra’s Djon África is a travelogue, broadly covering the numerous corners of the island nation of Cape Verde while a journey of self-discovery plays out concurrently with Miguel inhabiting the role of main character and an unknowing host, of sorts, treated like a tourist in his own homeland. An overall modest work, wherein Reis and Guerra explore the folds in the fabric of one’s identity – nationally, familially and individually – in such a relaxed, unfussed way that leads to unassuming realizations and discoveries both large and small.