Zoe RamushuApril 23, 2021
Mary Twala Mhlongo (1939-2020) in “This Is Not a Burial. It’s a Resurrection.” (IMDb)

I’m Black and African. But I have never seen mud and dung being mixed together to replaster a mud hut’s floor or been present for a sheep shearing ceremony until I watched Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s, “This Is Not a Burial. It’s a Resurrection.”This first narrative feature film shot in Lesotho by a Mosotho director is also the small landlocked country’s first submission to the Oscars in the category of Best International Feature Film.

Sprawling and culturally lush, the film juxtaposes existential questions and the narrative of one small woman, Mantoa, played by Mary Twala Mhlongo, a prolific and beloved octogenarian actor. Ms. Twala is best known to an international audience for her role in the star-studded “Sarafina!,an international collaboration between South African, French, U.K. and U.S. filmmakers featuring Whoopi Goldberg, John Kani, Miriam Makeba and Leleti Khumalo in lead roles and premiering in 1992 at the Cannes Film Festival.

This feature film shot in Lesotho is the small landlocked country’s first submission to the Oscars in the category of Best International Feature Film.

“Death has forgotten you,” says the unnamed narrator, played by another veteran South African actor, Jerry Mofokeng wa Makhetha, speaking of Mantoa, whom we first see hardened by grief moments after she learned that her son died in a mining accident in neighboring South Africa and whose entire family has died. We meet her desiring her own death, planning her funeral. She is unceremoniously interrupted when news arrives about the construction of a dam. Unless someone puts a stop to the construction, it will not only flood her village but wash away all the graves. This is the main character’s major turning point. She begins to live again—defending the dead.

The almost two-hour film—awarded the Sundance Film Festival special jury prize for “visionary filmmaking”— revels in mimicking the cadence of generations of our grandmothers and their mothers: lyrical, unhurried and unbothered by the fast-paced world and its troubles. It rolls along confidently, often holding a frame for a moment longer than audiences are accustomed to—forcing one to look, look again and really see the characters. Close-ups of the faces of Mantoa and the unnamed narrator, wizened and textured by age, make for an unsettling visual experience, especially since we are more readily accustomed to gazing on the splendor of youthful, taut and dewy skin. This editorial choice by Mosese, who not only wrote and directed but also edited the film, brings an ethereal feeling to “This Is Not a Burial. It’s a Resurrection,” like looking at portraits of people who have died. This sobering truth played out in real life, almost as a poetic prophecy, when Ms. Twala died on July 4, shortly after the film premiered.

Unless someone puts a stop to the construction, it will not only flood her village but wash away all the graves.

Mantoa’s petite frame is often seen but never heard in the first half hour of the film. Instead, we hear only male voices: the narrator, the priest at her son’s funeral and even a little boy who counts down as he plays a game with his friends. A seemingly gaping and unforgivable error, from a male filmmaker in 2021, is rectified for the patient viewer when we come to understand that Mantoa has taken a vow of silence to avoid spewing her bitterness at life and at God.

“That which was once the cornerstone has now become a stumbling block for the old widow,” reflects the narrator as Mantoa struggles to make sense of all the deaths and tragedies in her life, having lost not only her family and son but the bedrock which was her religion. Like the deep and powerful waters below the mountain that “they” want to harvest, once Mantoa begins to speak against the project, she is a force of nature—relentless, unapologetic, unyielding.

Mantoa struggles to make sense of all the deaths and tragedies in her life, having lost not only her family and son but the bedrock which was her religion.

“Grief is a senseless suffering,” says Mantoa, “it has no meaning to it,” she tells the priest, who alludes to his own crisis of faith at the time of his wife’s death. With the apocalyptic year we’ve lived through, “This Is Not a Burial. It’s a Resurrection,” explores a universally poignant question that rings ever more urgent for us today: “Where is God in all this?” With her last living relative now buried in the ground and that very ground destined to be swept away by the tides of progress, progress that came with religion, Mantoa appears to discard her faith. Although, despite the film’s rich symbolism, with the syncretism between Christianity and many African traditions, it is difficult to be certain whether or not she has moved entirely away from Christianity. The tension between Westernized religion and African traditional beliefs sits comfortably beside patriarchy, colonialism, and the struggle between rural and urban life. Yet, though the film is heavy with the issues it raises, it is never heavy-handed.

Though the device is poetic and skillfully executed, Mosese’s use of a narrator throughout the film to signal the words and the themes of “burial” and “resurrection” may have been overplayed and not absolutely necessary. A film this steeped in cleverly and artfully multilayered metaphors could have trusted more in its audience and left them to make the powerful thematic connections on their own.

“Grief is a senseless suffering...it has no meaning to it,” Mantoa tells the priest, who alludes to his own crisis of faith at the time of his wife’s death.

The original Basotho costumes and the set design are remarkable. But it would be disingenuous to call the set and cast “authentic,” considering all the extras—who play the roles of villagers—are locals of the village where the film was shot. The overall creative production is breathtaking and believable. The stakes of the film are raised when we learn of the filmmaker’s own life trials. Mosese was evicted from his home; and while he was shooting the film, his grandmother was undergoing forced resettlement. The narrative may be fictional, but the people affected by the issues portrayed are real.

A forest is destroyed to build the main road, and villagers are seen picking up plastic scraps that have accumulated in the cemetery. The film’s ecological concern reveals the human race as a pariah, the inventor of its own destruction. It is unfortunate that the architects are never the ones to suffer.

This accomplished film may not connect with lockdown streaming audiences who have picked up the insufferable swipe-left habit of giving a film a five-minute chance to grab them before committing. The length and pace of this film make an exhibition of the striking and unforgiving mountainous Lesotho terrain and wasn’t made to be watched on a laptop or television screen. Already released in the United States, the film is set for theatrical release soon in South Africa. But for cineastes happy to pay for a cinematic experience: Relish this unique masterpiece and give the filmmaker the pleasure and right of telling in full every minute of Lesotho’s first feature-length story.

The film’s ecological concern reveals the human race as a pariah, the inventor of its own destruction. It is unfortunate that the architects are never the ones to suffer.

The title of the film may also provoke curiosity among international audiences because it breaks with the more accepted Western convention of one-, two- or three-word titles. It is only slightly shorter than other Mosese films, like “Mother I’m Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” Longer titles are not uncommon in Southern Africa, for example: “Happiness Is a Four-letter Word”, “Tell Me Sweet Something” and “Sew the Winter to My Skin.”

Mosese gives a genuine voice to rural Africa, rarely heard on film. The mud hut dung-plastering and sheep shearing ceremony is as novel for Africans as it will be for audiences in the United States.

Correction: May 7, 2021: The original review incorrectly listed “Happiness Is a Four-letter Word”, “Tell Me Sweet Something” and “Sew the Winter to My Skin” as one film rather than three separate titles.

More: Film / Africa

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