Displacement as the Root of Vision

in 31st Tromsø International Film Festival

by Sven Hollebeke

From its very first pre-title frames, it is clear that Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s startling This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019) will be about resistance, about the will to escape a fate laid upon one. As we see a horse struggling to escape the attack of an armed tribesman in blurred slow-motion images, the title card comes up. Continuing its cryptic and poetically charged start, the film’s first scene opens with a slowly panning camera in a bar until a narrator is revealed, who is playing the lesiba, a Basotho stringed-wind instrument. Although very much rooted in the real and in timely displacement cinema, This Is Not a Burial sets up a framing device, as if what we are about to see is the stuff of legends. An elderly man sits at the bar and speaks of “the plains of weeping”, inviting us (“gather round little children”) to what is “not a death march, nor a burial”, but “a resurrection, the genesis”. When we are transferred to the plains of Lesotho and their majestic pastel colours, the story of a community about to lose its sacred ground unfolds.

Mantoa, an 80-year-old widow, is awaiting the return of her son, her last surviving family member. He has been working in the South African gold mines. When she learns that he has died, the not-much-left-to-live-for Mantoa begins preparing her own death. She even seeks out a local man to dig her a grave. But when death is creeping closer, life calls upon her again. Her community is threatened by the governmental order to move away so that a new reservoir and dam can be built over their town, including the resting places of their ancestors. Upended by this injustice, Mantoa makes a last stand, inspiring her neighbours to do the same.

Diasporic film-maker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, born in the peculiar country of Lesotho, left his home country eight years ago. Since 2007 he has been making (short) films on religion, patriarchy and displacement. The cinema of displacement has – in part – always been about the sense of not belonging, about letting out the anger and disappointment of not being a valued community member. Not in your place of birth nor in the place you currently call home. Mosese’s second feature, the essay-film Mother, I Am Suffocating (2019), chisels a symbolic motherly voyage out of the wastelands and crowded streets of an African country. He built the film around his own mother. In a similar way, he plays with his own ancestry and heritage in his latest effort, mythically retelling the story of the resettlement of his late grandmother’s village that is now happening. The agency of the continuous story-telling about displacement is constant in Mosese’s work. In interviews, the director has pointed out that he is in every scene, in every frame, in each thematic digression. Even though he does not live in Lesotho anymore, he feels that he has never really left. It is a story that reminds me of the work and life of film-maker Jayro Bustamante, who – like Mosese – lives in Berlin and cannot force himself to tell anything other than the stories of his country of birth, Guatemala.

This Is Not a Burial is another example of Mosese’s “barefooted cinema”, a movement he started inspired by Third Cinema in Africa. The intention is to keep the gap between the initial emotion towards the idea and the end product as small as possible. His anger and his resilience towards the current post-colonial (South) African society is compressed in and expressed by Mantoa, as fierce a character as ever. Carried by a performance for the ages by seasoned South African actress Mary Twala Mhlongo, Mantoa becomes a warrior of justice and spirituality. Her gaze and her wrinkled skin bewitch the camera, drawing us in ever closer. She is the resilient centre of a story of grief, life, death, ruralism, and so much more. The gods may have abandoned her and her community, but she refuses to abandon her wish to be buried next to her ancestors on the same land she was born.

If anything, Mosese’s fiction debut is an imposing, burdened folk tale filmed with a clear personal vision. Rarely has a film so occupied by death and sorrow looked so impeccably crafted. The texture of his film-making is almost akin to a Renaissance painting. Pierre de Villiers’ cinematography favours high contrasts, pitch-black interiors and grainy still shots. Yet, the breath-taking imagery never overwhelms the specificity of place. At times it seems influenced by Béla Tarr, artistic Soviet cinema and expressionist painters, such as Käthe Kollwitz. But upon seeing Mantoa sitting in her bed, dressed in black, shadows behind her, another auteur film-maker comes to mind: Pedro Costa. Its locale makes This Is Not a Burial a singular experience, of course, but visually (and thematically) the film resembles and recalls the existential dread (and hope) of Costa’s modernist portraits of the immigrants of the now demolished Fontainhas, an impoverished Lisbon neighbourhood. At night, This is Not a Burial is infused with a dream-like or nightmarish quality. Framed in Academy Ratio, Mantoa could easily be a Costa protagonist. However, her stand is unlike Costa’s mostly suffering characters. Mosese and Mary Twala Mhlongo give Mantoa a sense of power. As a beguiling witch she is ready to drive out the capitalist intruders. This is only the most recent battle for the little town, after being commanded by the French missionaries in the 19th century and the colonialism of the past. The climax is an arresting piece of reactionary cinema. It is a fiery call for awareness of displacement and forced rootlessness.

Aided by an ominous score by Yu Miyashita and an almost palpable sound design, this magic-realist fable is not just an exercise in visionary African film-making. It is the proof of a new voice, yet one which is already fully aware of its distinctiveness and potency. Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese may struggle with feeling at home, but his films will always be right at home in every cinema around the world.

Sven Hollebeke
Edited by Birgit Beumers