Poll position: African futures

We need new African directors in the Top 100: let’s start with Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese.

11 August 2022

By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2019)
Sight and Sound

As a teenager growing up in Nigeria, it was important to me to be well versed in the world, to know things, to know great things intimately. And so, the question formed slowly over months: what resources would lead me to the best music, to quality literature, to great cinema? The answer(s) came slowly. Magazines, Google and that trusty reservoir of snobbery, a French friend. For music and literature, the list of award-winning works was enough. I ploughed through the Grammys and memorised a list of Booker Prize winners.

Cinema was a little more complicated. Best Picture winners at the Oscars came first and then the big three festivals (Berlin, Cannes and Venice). Along the way, I discovered film criticism, and fascination became aspiration. If I learned enough, could this be me? The film industry in Nigeria had become a commercial behemoth and I followed it – how could I not? – but subconsciously a pattern formed: have mindless fun with films from home; for seriousness, look to the West.

By the time I discovered Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time poll, the pattern was set. It would take years of understanding the (political) shape of the world before I understood how the inevitable biases of a group of people drawn principally from one hemisphere might influence a list of greatest films. That awareness has led to a disappointment I can summarise in one question. How is it that the last Top 100 list, in 2012, had just one African film, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s stylish Touki Bouki (1973), sitting at the bottom of the list (at number 93)?

Touki Bouki (1973)

Of course, part of the problem is distribution. Even within the countries that make up Africa, it is easier to see the latest Hollywood film than a box-office hit from a neighbouring country. And surely Touki Bouki’s inclusion was connected in some way to Martin Scorsese’s bringing-up-the-bodies effort, his World Cinema Project, launched five years before the poll – after all three polls were held between Touki Bouki ’s Cannes screening and its Greatest Films appearance. Better late than never, I guess.

But rather than berate the short-sightedness of the past, let’s look to the future. Technology’s inexorable collision with film distribution ensures that, today, only the incurious critic is yet to see more than a handful of films by African filmmakers. There were choices then; there are more now, with plenty accessible on demand. But for anyone labouring under the weight of available options, here’s my recommendation: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019). Mosese’s masterwork has been shown everywhere that voters for the upcoming poll probably need it to show: in Venice, at Sundance, on whatever screen the Oscars’ international jury chose last year (it was Lesotho’s entry for Best International Feature Film).

The film follows Mantoa, an elderly widow who has lost her son – her last living relative – in a mining accident. She sinks into grief and begins to prepare for her own funeral but more bad news is on its way. The government wants to erect a dam in her village, Nasaretha. But for that to happen, the villagers must move to a city. The news is too much for Mantoa. This is the land that birthed her. Why should she be deprived of dying on it? Mosese, who directed, wrote and edited his film, presents this woman’s act of defiance as both steeped in myth and deeply realistic, his background in poetry coming through in dialogue and oneiric visuals.

As Africa is in the throes of westward migration, his film provides an engaging perspective for the geographically-minded critic but it is probably safe to not view the film as a statement against the migration of Africans, given that the filmmaker, a Mosotho, is based in Berlin. As he said, “I am a part of Berlin but I know I don’t belong there; I belong to Lesotho and yet I am not a part of it.”

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019)

But this is not a film to be viewed only through a political lens. Because of its powerful lead, the late, great Mary Twala, we see a woman steeped in despair, not a symbol and its paraphernalia. Part of Mosese’s ingenuity lies in placing her at the centre of his frame, several times in close-up, and giving her cliché-free sentences. Making his film even more potent, he has a narrator (Jerry Mofokeng Wa) speak poetically, enigmatically, as the story unfolds. Aided by Yu Miyashita’s score and Pierre de Villiers’ cinematography, which often has the composition and pulchritude of paintings, Mosese’s film is a sensory treat.

Its engagement of the senses is one thing This is Not a Burial has in common with its freewheeling ancestor Touki Bouki, so much so that it can be viewed as one part of an African avant-garde double bill. It is both a counterpoint and companion piece to Mambéty’s film. Where Touki Bouki deals in youth, Mosese’s focus is dotage; Touki Bouki’s characters dream of Paris, of Europe; Mantoa wants only Nasaretha, the land of her ancestors – and yet both are highly unusual films unshackled by narrative or visual convention. It took decades to get Touki Bouki on the list; that shouldn’t happen to This Is Not a Burial.

Critics, by some uncanny alchemy, are too susceptible to glorification of the past. Thus, I imagine one question is certain to arise in their minds considering Mosese’s 2019 film: is it too early to include it in a ‘greatest films ever’ poll?

Hmm… well, I sympathise with the thought. But I plump for its inclusion citing these details from the past. Bicycle Thieves appeared in the 1952 poll four years after it was released. L’avventura showed up in the 1962 list two years after it was released. And Alain Resnais’ head spinner Last Year at Marienbad came out in 1961; it showed up in the poll the very next year.

It is true that time is a great judge, but, sometimes, you just know.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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