starring Mary Twala Mhlongo, Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makheta, Makhaola Ndebele, Tseko Monaheng
written and directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
by Walter Chaw In Lesothan hyphenate Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's debut film This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (hereafter Burial/Resurrection), the fate of a village, soon to be drowned as a casualty of a government dam project, weighs heavily on elderly widow Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo). Mantoa's striking visage suggests an octogenarian Beckett photographed by Jane Bown, perhaps, the lines on her face describing a road map of the places she's been. Her sorrows include a lost husband, child, and brother--to a mining accident, illness, and misadventure, respectively. The one thing tethering her to the ground is the village's cemetery, where all her hopes are interred. The film's introduction, a slow crawl through what vibes as a jazz club as an old man (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) sits playing his Sotho lesiba (which makes music that sounds a little like a dirty-water trombone) in counterpoint to his slam poetry-like incantatory recitation of the movie's themes, the whole of it working like nothing more than a grand invocation to the muse. Burial/Resurrection is film as epic poem, and it has moments of truly staggering power. Power it only really loses when it cuts too quickly, cleanly, back to the narrative of the film itself. What would it have been like had it leaned harder into being a stream of images?
There's a scene where the only lighting is occasional flashes of lightning, illuminating a tree in the yard and, through a window, the old woman, Mantoa, sitting with her back to us. Mosese lingers on the shot for longer than you think he will, though you wish it were longer. The temptation is to look for comparisons to African cinema and filmmakers, but this is something out of Béla Tarr's visual lexicon, just as the picture's overriding concept of people adrift in a wave of time is more the favoured subject of modern Chinese fare. Indeed, Mosese reminds me most of Jia Zhangke or flavour-of-the-moment Bi Gan in the latter's use of palette, pace, and downward existential arc. Periodically, Mosese will interrupt his film for the narrator (the old man in the club) to offer Shakespearean asides revealing the emotional, or literal, states of the characters. "Lament, old widow," is one, coming immediately after a devastating sequence where Mantoa pantomimes waltzing with a phantom partner in a black lace dress. "The wind howls with the unwholesome call of death, but death does not come." I...get it, I do. It's an artistic decision, a strategy to lend mythological weight to the troubles of this village and its matriarch. I would say merely that I don't think she needs any help.
Two-thirds of the way through, Mantoa transitions into a figure of protest. She's the rallying point around which her village organizes to challenge their forced resettlement. (There's another film at Sundance this year, a Romanian one called Acasa, My Home, that deals with similar issues. Must be something in the air: immigrants and refugees? Who knows.) The moment it switches to that kind of film rather than this ode to melancholy, or thanatopsis, it becomes instantly familiar. The ending can only be nobly tragic or tragically noble. The struggles, the setbacks, the resolute power of the little man in the face of the faceless corporation/government/system--we've been making movies like this since we've been making them at all. It's a shame, because Burial/Resurrection is a more powerful indictment of the age of missing empathy before it becomes a sort of Lesothan Norma Rae. I'm overstating the shift. Tonally, it maintains a mysterious, almost reverent aura. But as the narrative becomes expository, that tone begins to lose its persuasiveness. It begins to feel contrived. It's why, I suspect, Terrence Malick doesn't make The Irishman. Still, there's more than enough genuine beauty in This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection to merit it a look and Mosese some serious credibility. It's not often that someone gets in the same ballpark as early Herzog their first time at-bat. Programme: World Cinema Dramatic Competition