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  • Reviewed from BFI London Film Festival 2021

Bantú Mama follows the fate of Emma (Clarisse Albrecht), a French woman of African descent who travels from France to the Caribbean, where she gets arrested for drug trafficking. Escaping custody, she accidentally meets and finds refuge with teenagers T.I.N.A (Scarlet Reyes), Artur Perez ($hulo), who live with their younger sibling Cuki (Euris Javiel) in an unnamed neighbourhood, presented as one of the most dangerous of Santo Domingo. Fending for themselves, with a dead mother and a father in jail, the teenagers mostly keep Emma at arm’s length, absorbed by their own social worlds, either making street music or trying to make ends meet; while she forms a bond with Cuki, with whom she spends most of her time indoors, trying to hide from the police. The film mostly explores Emma’s shifting relation to the children and their desire to escape. 

Directed by Dominican filmmaker and street photographer, Ivan Herrera, Bantú Mama purports to stage a ‘reencounter’ between Africa and the Caribbean through the growing connection between Emma and the children, one in which Senegal becomes a site of possible return. The film’s tripartite structure remains intentionally unequal, as glimpses of France and Senegal frame a story which unfolds largely in the Dominican Republic.

The film’s Dominican DP, Sebastián Cabrera Chelin, takes inspiration from Herrera’s own street photography, creating a stunning universe of mostly dreamy static shots using anamorphic lenses and available light. His cinematography tells a story about distance, transience and estrangement. Characters are often framed by windows, passageways, mirrors or doors, on the threshold of change. The film portrays Black life in the interstices, a sense of displacement in the form of vacations, perilous migrations or deportations – images of planes, buses and boats abound.  

Far from offering a flattened portrayal of Blackness, Bantú Mama grapples with the geographical uneveness of class and citizenship status across the diaspora. France and the Dominican Republic stand as inverted mirrors, as the landscape of cements or high-density tower blocks to which France relegates its Black and Brown minorities give place to familiar tropes of blue sea and sand paradises, empty of people except for the service staff. While Emma’s time in France in the first few minutes of the film is dominated by mostly eye-level shots and the low light of interiors – the bus, an underground passageway and Emma’s apartment – the Dominican Republic is full of piercing light, overhead and extreme wide shots, open landscapes. The very first images we see of the Caribbean are mostly static postcard shots of blue skies and palm trees. Only the encounter with the children affords Emma a deeper connection with the city.

Scarlet Reyes at T.I.N.A in Bantú Mama
Scarlet Reyes as T.I.N.A in Bantú Mama
© Courtesy of London Film Festival

Bantu Mama deftly captures the “controlling images” – in bell hook’s fortuitous phrasing – through which various segments of the Black diaspora come to understand each other. When Cuki learns Emma is from Cameroon, he leaps into an imitation of adamu – a Maasai warrior dance – in one of the film’s rare moments of kinetic effervescence. Emma playfully corrects him, asserting she is Bantu, not Maasai. A loose signifier, which means “people” in Zulu and encompasses various populations across central and southern Africa, “bantu” is not as outright wrong as “Maasai” but still betrays her own estrangement from more localized understandings of belonging. From Black Europe to the Caribbean, this is a thoughtful meditation on truncated visions and the fractures of diaspora.

The bulk of the film’s force lies in the protagonists’ shifting relationships. The adjacent storylines, however, lack substance. We know next to nothing from Emma’s previous life in France, her relationships or profession, or why she would travel to the Dominican Republic. The drug trafficking story is not fleshed out: Emma’s gross inexperience, which ultimately leads to her arrest, raises questions as to why a drug trafficking network would trust her for the job in the first place. Everything seems to function merely as narrative crutches for Emma to cross paths with T.I.N.A, Artur and Cuki. 

As the police continue to chase Emma and life in the neighbourhood becomes increasingly unbearable, Senegal comes to be regarded as a site of possible refuge by Emma. Yet the re-encounter the screenwriters envision between Africa and the Caribbean starts to feel less and less charged, since the visual representation of Senegal in the film is no less a tourist mirage of idyllic seascapes than Emma’s initial impressions of the Dominican Republic. Bantú Mama seems at its best when diasporic relations exist as questions needing to be constantly revisited rather than as resolutions.

Originally published: 1 November 2021