Our Place and Our Pasts
Every March when the AFI Silver Theater starts its New African Cinema showcase, it’s a rare opportunity for everyone in the Silver Spring and greater Washington D.C. community to experience cinema from a continent that has been historically underrepresented in the visual arts world. Africa has been a mystery when it comes to cinema – it certainly was for me until the last few years – and it is a major blind spot for nearly every film critic. With more accessibility via streaming platforms, African cinema started to pitter-patter like rain into the American film enthusiast’s consciousness with movies like John Trengove’s The Wound, Blitz the Ambassador’s The Burial of Kojo, and Mati Diop’s much-heralded Atlantiques. As hopeful as this is, African cinema’s accessibility through streaming should not shove aside its continued segregation from traditional distribution avenues, which, if the New African Film Festival was any evidence is a much more illuminating and experiential way to see these films.
I have been covering the New African Film Festival for three years now, the first year on my old film blog, which I used to write spare thoughts in, but since officially starting freelance writing, I have covered it for Frameland. Last year’s piece can be found here. What I have found in the last three years was a diverse buffet of cultures, languages, religious beliefs, and styles in African cinema that are working in a realm of artistic diversity almost extinct here in homogenous Hollywood. Yet, there is a clear theme and unified voice among African filmmakers that speaks to the collective trauma of colonialism and destabilization they and their nations have all faced through centuries of oppression by imperial Europeans and North Americans. The three films that I screened in the now 14th Annual New African Film Festival, cut short by a global pandemic, were all unified by their filmmaker’s conscious sense of place and hauntings of the past.
The use of metaphor is a powerful tool for unfurling the more difficult parts of our cultural histories and it is certainly a sharpened tool for Kenyan cinema’s premier storyteller Mugambi Nthiga, who’s previous two screenwriting credits, Kati Kati and Supa Modo (Kenya’s second-ever Oscar submission after Nairobi Half Life which Nthiga acted in) are adequate lead-ups to his directorial debut Lusala. While fantasy and spirituality took a more literal meaning in Kati Kati, which dealt with a community in the after-life, Lusala is a film which uses fantasy in a metaphorical sense to confront the past. Lusala (Brian Ogola) is a young man rescued by a rich family from abuse in a poor village, and is officially ‘leaving the nest’. As we get to know more about Lusala we see he is an amiable young man with good relationships with his father, sister, boss, and a young girl named Bakhita (Stycie Waweru). His mother, however, not so much.
Lusala is plagued with visions of his past life, where he remembers he is beaten mercilessly by an armed guard and made to dance for his amusement. We realize halfway through the movie that Lusala’s time with Bakhita is imagined, almost like a schizophrenic episode, where he acts out emotions and conversations with her to the bewilderment of everyone around him. Bakhita is a clear metaphor for Lusala’s past but her presence switches from sweet to menacing every time Lusala tries to ignore her, signalling that rather than confront and obliterate the things that haunt him, Lusala’s trauma forces him to entertain them and live with the regret.
It is a key part of why his relationship with his foster family is never fully realized. They think of him as an outsider, with a different experience, and a different origin from them. Nthiga lines the movie with a lot of class segregation issues which plague Kenya, with lower-class people continually considered at worst, dirty and disposable, and at best, sad individuals to patronize with empty empathy. As much of film history and its distribution and profit has been owned by Western filmmakers, filmmakers in the “global south” have managed to claim a space for themselves through adapting themes and plots from American and European films into their cultural context. Nthiga is very much inspired through American dramatic thrillers, particularly Shyamalan and Ron Howard, which he co-opts into Kenyan culture to make a movie deeply conscious of the ways in which political trauma has psychologically affected youth in the region.
Less playful and much more directly confrontational in a way that is both heart-rending and visionary, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s Mother, I am Suffocating. This is My Last Film About You is one of the most remarkably original films I’ve seen in recent years. Playing to the same wavelengths as Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, this experimental “diary entry” documentary, which Mosese openly refers to as a “lament”, aims to forgo narrative and even documentation in the traditional sense for something more akin to an essay and meditative visuals. Mosese addresses his nation Lesotho as “mother”, both a direct acknowledgement of English vernacular that refers to countries in the feminine, but also in a much deeper sense of birth, growth, and physical attachment from womb to adulthood.
As Mosese speaks in uncompromising terms, painful to listen to in their harsh and unforgiving verbiage, which paints Lesotho as a nation of lies, we see very grainy impressionistic black and white footage – think E Elias Merhige’s Begotten – of a woman struggling to carry a giant cross across the capital city of Maseru accompanied by a young androgynous person with angel wings. The woman sweats, collapses several times but is given no help in carrying the cross. What metaphors may be at play here – the burden of a mother country’s political turmoil, the responsibility to its citizens, the burden of its history under colonialism – are tied to heavy Christian allegory.
This isn’t Mosese’s first dance with religion. It is a recurring theme in his work from his debut film For Those Who’s God is Dead. Lesotho’s population is more than 95% Christian and the country’s recent turmoil with a coup in 2014 created political unrest. Mosese’s immigration from Lesotho to Germany lead to his looking back at his motherland with both beauty and disgust. In an interview with Variety magazine he says, “I saw my country Lesotho, and on a larger scale Africa, as a child sees its mother. It’s okay to be mad and scream. In the end, she is my Mother. Despite all the bullshit, I see her.”
This informs the tone and beauty of his personal letter. He creates rage with his words, as a child would lambast a neglectful and abusive mother. In parts, he becomes to rattled and angry, he mentions how the “white man” was “right about you.” This is a hard thing for many of us, who consider ourselves worldly and acquainted with atrocities of colonialism to comprehend. What we don’t “get” is that these feelings are difficult and complicated and the anger of betrayal from one’s own home can be expressed in many ways and should be allowed because it is their home. Not ours. We don’t get to lecture them about the history of their country.
Mosese laments the horrors and the scars and the poor job that his “mother” did to raise not just him but the population of the nation. Yet, the movie ends with a singular line that echoes in the mind continuously – “I look in the mirror, do you know what I see? I see you.” The past that Mosese confronts with anguish and lament is something that is inside of him and part of him that he still loves and understands as identity.
After the colossal emotional impact of Mother, I am Suffocating, and even the heavy-genre thrills of Lusala it was good to see a film which dealt with connections to land and the past in a comical way. Moroccan cinema has been hitting on all cylinders in recent years, coming to the forefront of the festival-goers attention with Gabriel Laxe’s Mimosas in 2017 which I still can’t quite wrap my head around but have the feeling will be looked back on as an early-century masterpiece. This year, I got to see Alaa Eddine Aljem’s The Unknown Saint, a bone-dry comedy that lies somewhere between Aki Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson.
The movie follows along with four stories that take place in a village that has recently been enraptured by a mysterious burial mound, which appears on the top of the hill and has been turned into a place of worship for the “Unknown Saint”. It happens that the burian mound was actually a hiding place of a giant stack of cash by a thief (Younes Bouab). As he tries to retrieve his money an armed guard and his German Shephard, employed with guarding the tomb, become his main obstacles. Meanwhile, a doctor fresh out of medical school starts to take patients in the village, and an old farmer named Brahim and his son Hassan struggle to maintain the soil in a dusty field that hasn’t seen rain in years.
Each story in Aljem’s film circles around the question of why we are brought to an connected to a place. It could be for greed (the thief), to do good (the doctor), to serve a holier purpose (the guard), or to stay true to one’s past (Brahim), but the essence of our sense of place comes from finding purpose within it. Much of the movie intertwines these stories and we watch the characters find reasons for why they landed where they did. Perhaps we too will, sooner than later, find out why we are where we are.