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Sundance 2020: Ancestral Tales

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s "This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection" and Joko Anwar's "Impetigore" are haunting tales of ancestral bonds.
Ela Bittencourt
Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, a fiction debut that screened at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, is a tale of a rural people displaced. In this case, by Lesotho’s provincial officials, who want to re-appropriate the land to construct a dam. Contemporary cinema has featured a similar plot a number of times, perhaps most famously in Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006). But in Mosese’s ambitious, mournful film, the uprooting runs deeper. The central character, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), is an eighty-year-old widow who learns that her son, who’s been working in the South African mines, has died. The worn-out Mantoa wakes up each day yearning for her own demise. But when her community is ordered to move, she realizes that her remains will not rest among her ancestors, in the village cemetery. Mantoa then rallies her neighbors to oppose the local bureaucrats.
In the film’s extended timeline—introduced to us, like a folk tale, by an elderly storyteller (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) as he sits in a bar—the villagers recall such events as “the plague.” Framed this way, the place seems timeless. And yet, despite its semi-mythical tone, Mosese’s film is very much rooted in the real. The mountain landscape, the villagers’ modest homes—Mantoa’s strewn with her clothes hanging from the ceiling—their work in the fields, or the bonds between young and old, all convey a sense of specificity. So does the historical context. In one scene, as Mantoa tends to a frail old man, he recalls that the village’s church was built by the French missionaries in the mid 1800s. A symbol of comfort to some, the church is nevertheless a reminder that the village’s history was already wiped clean once before: The missionaries demanded that the locals surrender their spears, to melt them into church bells. Now the bells’ towing speaks the crushing truth. Or as the old man says, “[The ancestors] didn't just surrender their spears, but their gods too.” Mantoa, however, opposes any further surrender, be it to the order of corrupt politicians or to the leadership of Christian priests who side with the authorities.
Mosese’s previous feature, a documentary, Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You (2019), already revealed him to be a rapturous poet of the real. With a fluid structure, that film was an angry, anti-imperialist lament. Mosese’s second feature, while perhaps more settled due to its dramatic narrative arc, is nevertheless born of rhapsodic images, first and foremost. And what images they are; every still a searing tableau. With her finely chiseled cheeks and imperial bearing, Mantoa is every inch a kin of Vitalina Varela, the main actress in Pedro Costa’s film that takes her name as its title—an elderly black woman whose force electrifies each scene. When framed by primary colors, particularly royal blues, Mantoa comes across as a glorious, forbidding warrior-queen. Taking in this exquisitely composed film—with a sophisticated sound design, which, in itself, is a dissonant opera—I was constantly reminded of the distinct force of another filmmaker who so poignantly documented the tragedy but also the creative, intellectual force of the African continent: the Senegalese master, Djibril Diop Mambety. Senegal and Lesotho are distant on the map, yet Mosese seems to drink from the same creative spring as his predecessor. Similarly to Linguère Ramatou, in Mambéty’s Hyènes (1992), Mosese’s Mantoa is an extraordinary woman whose angry refusal to bow down to fate haunts you long after you’ve seen it.
I saw another movie at Sundance, which, while it couldn’t be further from Mosese stylistically, nevertheless shares his theme of appeasing ancestral forces: Impetigore (also showing at the Rotterdam Film Festival), a horror film by the Indonesian director Joko Anwar. This was my first time coming to Anwar’s work, but I loved his layered approach, in which the scariness is rooted in social detail—namely, in the chauvinist treatment of women. In the film, a young beauty, Maya (Tara Basro), works at a highway tollbooth, when a mysterious stalker tries to kill her with a machete. After this startling trauma, Maya goes into business with her best friend, Dini (Marissa Anita), selling cheap clothes from a cramped stall. But the would-be-killer’s questions about Maya’s village, which she left when she was five, lead her to believe that she has inherited her family’s estate. Maya knows her parents only from photographs; she’s been brought up by her aunt. But now she embarks on a long trip with Dini to claim what’s hers—and so unravels a rich tale of lust, envy, evil spells, and murder.
The success of Anwar’s story lies in his remaining close to Maya’s point of view. The aggression she’s suffered makes her fidgety and wary of delusions. In the city, when she’s amidst the dark shuttered stalls, mysterious women appear wearing black abayas. During her journey, Maya keeps seeing little girls—the same girls, again and again. Once May and Dini get to the estate, the plot thickens: There is a strange illness going around that causes babies to be born without skin. Tiny graves pepper the cemetery and the villagers cast evil looks at the two newcomers. Soon enough, Maya realizes that her real Javanese name strikes horror in the villagers’ hearts. They will go to any lengths—even human sacrifice—to calm vengeful spirits.
The film’s cinematography, by Ical Tanjung, is shrouded in heavy mist and low light. Figures often lurk just at the edge of the frame, or in the fuzzy deep focus. Anwar also knows how to pace the story, particularly how to offset the onset of horror with light flickers of humor. Dini’s back-and-forth with Maya—about guys who creep them out or Dini’s big business plans once they strike it rich—function as a welcome comic relief. Then suddenly the lens darkens, with not only violence against women's bodies (from painful labor to baby killing to mutilation and murder), but also multiple references to and an attempted rape. It is a pity that this initial scary realism gets tossed out at the end. Maya’s visions, introduced as stalling flashbacks, fill us in on the cumbersome twists in her parents’ biography (here we learn that an illicit affair between Maya’s mother and a puppeteer is linked to Maya’s birth, and is the true source of the curse). But by then, the jumble of past motifs hardly matters. Regardless of such snarls, it’s possible to luxuriate in Impetigore’s evocation of a dark, forbidden ancestral place, one fitted with vibrant yet treacherously thick forest, whose trees turn ominously red in the night, a haunted house with musty furniture and stained windows, or the startling sight of babies born without skin. The latter particularly points to the truth that we’re all born “raw,” that is, vulnerable to outside threats. When Maya is saved by the compassion of another woman—a stranger who puts her suffering above ancestral lore or personal pain—Impetigore turns into a worthy tale of sisterhood.

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Festival CoverageSundanceSundance 2020Lemohang Jeremiah MoseseJoko Anwar
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