Against the assertion of the title, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection does look like more like a death than a reanimation, of an individual, a way of life and a group of villagers in Lesotho who are being relocated before their village is flooded to make way for a dam project. It’s an impressive film in pretty much every respect, and it’s entirely understandable why the country decided to submit it for Oscars consideration, something they’ve never done before.
This Burial/Resurrection idea is handled almost as a kind of dry joke, since the film’s focus is an old woman who spends the entire film trying to die, after learning of the death of her only remaining son on his way back from working in the mines. Mantoa is played by Mary Twala Mhlongo – who died aged 80 in July 2020 – and in early scenes we see her putting on her finest dress, laying down in bed and hoping against hope that she doesn’t wake up the next morning. Later, she literally climbs into the grave she’s bullied the local gravedigger into digging for her, covers her head in earth and waits for annihilation…
What’s eating her up isn’t just the loss of the entire family – one after one they have all died on her – but the loss of a way of life as the modern world intrudes and her village is prepared for evacuation. In particular she worries about the fate of those buried in the cemetery. The dead will die again, she frets.
The film is composed as a series of semi-impressionistic vignettes, expertly sewn together by director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, and he is blessed by Mhlongo’s performance as Mantoa, a stonefaced admonitory presence who appears in almost every scene, almost inevitably scowling at the latest developments, or pulling the “I’ve had enough of this shit” face and exiting. Leaving or about to leave. Meanwhile, more sneakily, clad in bright yellow overalls like little yellow ants, the dam engineers can be glimpsed at the edge of the frame, or in the background, taking their measurements and making their preparations.
Shot by DP Pierre de Villiers, it is a beautiful, striking and richly lit film. From the opening shot of the lesiba player (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) who acts as a narrative, almost shamanistically omniscient voice, almost every frame could be screen-grabbed. It helps that the landscape of the region is almost absurdly photogenic. The overlapping sound design and score (by Yu Miyashita aka Yaporigami) are exemplary too, starting with the choice of the lesiba itself – perhaps the world’s only string and wind instrument – the sonics play an important role, adding both atmosphere and context. Mantoa loves to listen to obituaries on her radio, which crackles as if receiving messages from the great ethereal beyond. Later, when the local MP turns up to discuss the dam and relocation, obviously already a fait accompli, his bullhorn echoes and distorts his voice. Why is he even using a bullhorn?
Away from officialdom, the village by comparison appears to be a model of consultative, collaborative democracy. If you were going to level any accusations at this film, it would be in its portrayal of village life. Too cute maybe. Just a touch.
The little yellow antlike engineers are the future and they are unstoppable. There is a more nuanced discussion of the idea of progress than this bare-bones sketch might suggest, Mosese appearing to suggest that it isn’t progress itself that’s such a terrible idea, rather that the people left behind by it could be better compensated. This area, we’re told, was once called the Plains of Weeping, then the missionaries renamed it Nasaretha (Nazareth), soon it will be just a lake. Things change.
Dripping with local colour thanks to extensive use of local residents in supporting roles, this remarkable film didn’t in the end make the Oscar nominations shortlist. Which, when you look at some of the films that did make it, seems a touch bizarre. No worries. Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese will rise again.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021