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Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese: Contours in the Dust

An introduction to the cinematic work of Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese as his latest, "This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection," is released.
Aaron E. Hunt
Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is exclusively showing on MUBI starting January 13, 2021 in the UK and other countries.
Writer, director and cinematographer Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese was born and raised in Hlotse, a market town in Lesotho near the South African border. Today Mosese lives in Berlin, where he’s lived for the last eight years. Since moving, he’s felt displaced in both his birth country and his new home. “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,” he explained to Christopher Vourlias in an interview for Variety. In Berlin, he formed “Barefooted Cinema,” a film movement characterized by its fast development process and the “Mokoari Collective,” a group of filmmakers who abide by the movement. Barefooted Cinema’s production timeline is truncated to mitigate gaps between a filmmaker’s immediate expression and the end product, versus the traditional method, which can repress the original conception and emotions that inspired a film. Mosese’s immediate feelings towards his birth country and his constant liminal state inspire many of his films and are preserved through this filmmaking process.
He returned to Lesotho to direct his first feature, Khapha tsa Mali (Tears of Blood), in 2007, but later disowned the film. Six years later, he directed his second feature, For Those Whose God is Dead, back in Berlin with an all-white cast. Neither film is currently in circulation. The next year, Mosese found himself back in Lesotho directing his short film, Mosonngoa, inspired by the “narrations” of the “only prominent female stick fighter in Lesotho,” Puseletso Seema. In 2016, Mosese returned again to film Behemoth: Or the Game of God and the video installation Loss of Innocence. Then, in 2019, he directed two features in his birth country: Mother, I Am Suffocating, This is My Last Film About You, and This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, which garnered critical acclaim on the festival circuit (Burial screened Venice, Rotterdam, and Sundance). Neither have received US distribution. From the earliest film of his I was able to screen (or what Mosese himself was able or willing to provide me), Mosonngoa, onward,  Mosese’s relationship with his birth country evolves palpably through his vacillating perspective and form.
With Mosonngoa, Mosese took a more collectivist approach to storytelling in Lesotho. Through the wide 2.39 aspect ratio, the community is accounted for, the protagonist Mosonngoa (Siphiwe Nzima-Ntskhe) is seen as an extension of that community, and the beauty of the country is accentuated. Mosonngoa’s father’s cows are seized by the village shepherd, ostensibly because they grazed on his field. On that condition, the cows come under his charge, and the shepherd offers them back to the family at a hefty sum. Mosonngoa can’t come up with the money on her current wages but the newest stickfighting competition promises the fittest fighter five cows, and so she primes herself for battle to save her family’s livelihood.
Mosese jabs at the patriarchal systems that lead to the internecine bloodletting and murders of women and children in the valley, primarily through a thomo playing man who sings about the village’s woes over the action. But these jabs are attenuated by the distance of the wide aspect ratio, beautiful shots of bucolic life, and a female protagonist who comes out on top against the region’s patriarchy. Mosonngoa hints at Mosese's frustration with his birth country, a frustration at least in part activated by his leaving. But that expression is suppressed and complicated by his politically correct, collectivist approach in Mosonngoa—where he holds himself accountable to the whole—and the daunting task of criticizing a country whose flaws stem from the legacy of imperialism.
In order to let his frustrations loose, Mosese had to adopt an individualist perspective. In his next short film, Behemoth: Or the Game of God and his doc-narrative feature that followed, Mother, I Am Suffocating, This is My Last Film About You, individualism takes the form of black and white, 16mm photography in the tight 1.33 aspect ratio, eschewing the wide frame that held him accountable to all. “I wanted to be more individual because of the anger seething beneath me. I didn’t want to be collective, because as a collective I have to be careful, be aware. I am a prisoner of political correctness in a way, because I am part of it. At the same time I can’t be direct and voice what I feel” he told Zsombor Bobák in an interview for the Teddy Award. “A part of the movement is telling our own stories. I want to protect [Africa] but at the same time I’m exhausted from only standing up for the motherland and not being able to point a finger. I allowed myself to be a child again, to cry out and lash out however I feel.” Mosese photographed Mosonngoa in the widescreen 2.39 aspect ratio to allow the breadth and beauty of the highland’s rolling mountains and to connect the villagers to each other and the landscape by fitting them into one frame. But, since Behemoth: Or the Game of God, Mosese has framed his films in the tight and square 1.33, cutting Lesotho’s airy vistas off the sides of his canvas, and shooting extreme close-ups of faces that isolate individuals from their environments.
In both Behemoth and Mother, Mosese sends actors to disrupt the daily routines of real people. In Behemoth, a preacher (Tseko Monaheng) attracts an audience and proclaims their God rests inside the coffin he drags by a chain. When he pulls the coffin lid ajar, he reveals the bundles of cash inside, causing the crowd to swarm the casket for whatever they can grab. In Mother, Mosese sends a woman carrying a massive wooden cross on her shoulder (Thato Kobotle), and “Doris the Beautiful” (Napo Kalebe) wandering in fairy wings, to “disrupt the everyday gaze” of the various people commuting on a popular street in Maseru, the Capital of Lesotho, while a tape recorded narration about an individual defecting from their God-fearing mother (based on Mosese’s own feelings about his mother) plays over the action. The particular street Mother is shot on might be nameless. When I asked Mosese for the name of the street he told me he only knew how locals describe the destination to cab drivers: “Drop me at the Pitso ground at the dust.” Working-class people cross “the dust” from their homes in the province to their work in the capital, and mix with vendors and the various people on the streets. Perhaps Mosese chose to impose his performance upon “the dust” because it is a transient space akin to his own sense of displacement. The preacher with the coffin, the woman with the cross, Doris with fairy wings, these controlled variables who stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise uncontrolled experiment, are all manifestations of how Mosese feels returning to Lesotho, and the agents through which he can criticize his birth country. The voiceover of the narrator defecting from their mother, of course, also reflects Mosese’s defecting from his home country to Berlin.
In both films, Mosese creates friction between the controlled narrative elements and the uncontrolled non-fiction elements through cinematography and sound. Shots vacillate between symmetric, choreographed frames of the actors and the roaming, docustyle shots of people reacting to the actors. Some of those handheld shots are shot in slow motion to lend them a smoothness and deliberation akin to the constructed ones, blending the two styles into a sort of harmonious conflict with each other. The constructed images portray Mosese’s individualist, subjective monologue, and the documentary-style images remind us of the realities of the Sotho people affected by his performance, which is why the styles alternate between butting heads and falling into unison, evoking his simultaneous love and hatred for his birth country, or “love expressed backwards,” as he described the feeling to Bobák. Sound follows suit, and alternates between the authentic, field recorded sound, and a version of the ambiance that’s been muffled in post-production and sounds as if we’re listening underwater, despite seeing the action firsthand.
In his latest film, This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, he returns to narrative to tell the story of an eighty-year-old widow named Mantoa, who wishes to die and be buried with her ancestors after she learns her last remaining relative, her son, has died while working in the mines. But her wish is scuppered when provincial officials announce that her village, Nasaretha, will be flooded for the construction of a dam and reservoir that will feed water and resources to South Africa, part of a long-running dam monopoly funded by the World Bank and export credit agencies. The villagers will each be paid the rand equivalent of one USD and be resettled to the nearest city, losing their arable land and livelihoods. Mantoa can’t fathom losing the graveyard of her ancestors, nor imagine her village submerged beneath a reservoir. Her sense of purpose is derailed.
As Mosese wrote the narrations in Mother I am Suffocating about his own mother, This is Not a Burial is inspired by the resettlement of his late grandmother’s village that is occurring today. The latter film is more dynamic in its perspective, shot in color, though still trapped in 1.33. He didn’t foist a performance upon unknowing passersby, but he brought a movie crew and the veteran South African actress Mary Twala to play Mantoa and act among actual villagers in the highlands, a decision justified by Mantoa’s feeling alienated from the rest of the village. For much of the film, Mantoa finds comfort only in her small home and remains there. When she finally, hesitantly ventures outside, the camera hesitates too, and captures her leaving from inside the house through the window, before it finally cuts outside. And Mosese vacillates with his sound again, the score drowning out Mantoa’s voice when she learns the news of her son’s passing, and a deep bass coming in and out to suffocate the natural ambiance. He juggles between an individualist perspective, but it’s Mantoa’s rather than his own, and the evolving collectivist perspective of the villagers who try to make the best of their unbudging fate as the sacrificial lambs of progress. Mosese accepts both the indifference of time and progress and Mantoa’s cries against it, or at least portrays them with an even hand. But it is clear through all his films that he yearns for his mother, grandmother’s village, Mantoa, Lesotho, and ultimately Africa to be included in and have influence over the result of that progress, instead of being what the Western world decided would be discarded on the way.

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