It takes exactly two shots to establish the Berlin-based filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese as a serious spellbinder.
And with his third feature-length project, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, the director has put his homeland, the Southern African Kingdom of Lesotho, on the map of world cinema.
So: What do we see in those first two shots?
We see villagers struggling to control a wild horse, backed by a seriously amazing soundscape by composer Yu Miyashita, in streaky, otherworldly slow motion. Then, after the movie’s title comes and goes against a black background, we’re inside a village tavern. The camera pivots and circles; men smoke, or drink, or dance, while a disco ball twirls, listlessly, overhead.
In a slow and careful zoom, the camera focuses on a storyteller (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) sitting in a far corner. He plays the stringed wind instrument (wonderful paradox) known as the lesiba. He tells of the woman we’re about to meet, an 80-year-old widow named Mantoa, awaiting the return of her son from a far-away gold mine.
But he won’t be coming home for Christmas. He has died, apparently on the job.
This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection relays the gradual, slow-rising aftermath of this tragic news, as Mantoa waits for death herself, while coming to grips with what is happening to her village.
As our narrator explains, death has forgotten this woman, though the magnificent actor playing her, Mary Twala Mhlongo, ensures that we cannot. Also known as Mary Twala (she appears in Beyonce’s 2020 video album Black is King), the South African legend died last year. This film is an indelible farewell, and though we say this sort of thing all the time, about all sorts of faces, hers is a face you’d follow anywhere, in any story.
The exterior conflict in writer-director Mosese’s drama is a familiar one, however unconventional the telling. Mantoa’s landlocked village, on the Senqu River, has been targeted for the construction of a new dam. This requires flooding what’s there — including the cemetery — and relocating the villagers.
Mantoa will have none of it. She goes about her own funeral preparations. The local priest, who works in a mid-19th-century chapel built by French missionaries, offers his consolation. He too has lost his spouse. For a time his sermons meant nothing to him. Then he was led by God, he tells her, to a place of “total surrender, where faith, courage and will become obsolete.” Mantoa says nothing; total surrender is not in her blood.
Throughout This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, scenes of village life unfold naturally, though the occasional sight of yellow-suited, yellow-hard-hatted land surveyors indicate trouble ahead. Mosese’s film is more like a series of visual rhyme schemes — intuitive, eccentric variations on the theme of the ravages of progress.
I saw Mosese’s film in its world premiere at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, where it was one of the out-of-competition Biennale College Cinema projects. (I’ve served on the College Cinema panel several times.) Later it went on to win a special Jury Award for Visionary Filmmaking at the 2020 Sundance festival. Mosese acknowledges the late Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty (”Hyenas”) as a key influence.
Others will liken this film’s rhythm and patience to that of Pedro Costa (Vitalina Varela). Still others will find a narrative bookend in Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960), in which Jo Van Fleet squares up against a hydroelectric dam being built under the Tennessee Valley Authority.
This Is Not a Burial was photographed in a boxlike 4:3 aspect ratio for good reason, Mosese told Film Comment: “The curse of shooting in Africa, because it is so beautiful, is that you can end up pigeonholing yourself within beauty. I don’t want the conversation to end in beauty. That’s why I chose the 4:3 ratio, because otherwise the movie would be way too beautiful and that would overshadow the story.”
On the other hand: Mary Twala Mhlongo is the film’s real story. And it contains multitudes. – Chicago Tribune