Director: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
Stars: Mary Twala, Jerry Mofokeng, Makhaola Ndebele
Lesotho sits in the midst of South Africa; a landlocked island on a continent whose cinema seldom makes it to our shores. A vast area of filmmaking effectively silenced by poor distribution and widespread apathy to what it has to say. This makes any release of African cinema feel like a welcome and necessary event. Having claimed a coveted Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival (and several more prizes on the circuit), Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s excellently-titled This is Not A Burial, It’s a Resurrection makes a fleeting UK appearance via MUBI. You’d do well to catch it while you can.
Clad head-to-toe in black that casts her partway between a nun and a widow, Mantoa (Mary Twala) is an elderly woman living in the rural hills of Lesotho. Her life is nearing its end and she is behaving accordingly, accepting of a dignified close to a long life. However, when the encroachment of the modern world threatens the future of the local village via a proposed new reservoir, Mantoa’s composure is ruffled. The spirit of defiance is given rebirth. It is this change of focus that gives the film it’s name.
Mosese’s film unfurls at an unhurried but exceptionally well calibrated pace, allowing the viewer ample time to admire the exceptional frames (lens by Pierre de Villiers), which tend to contrast humans with the vastness of their surroundings – be that land or sky – dwarfing them against the immense, redolent of their seemingly defenseless position. He’ll hold a shot for as long as is needed, cleaving close to the spirit of so-called ‘slow cinema’ but without becoming constrained by the unwritten rules of that movement. Rather, he will use the time to allow us to explore the frame ourselves, sometimes planting figures in the deep background while characters in the middle-distance or foreground discuss the thematic meat of the piece; displacement; colonialism; the cyclical nature of history. It is something the local priest (Makhaola Ndebele) touches on in the middle-section while Mantoa nurses a sick patient.
Colour is used exquisitely, to shroud or expose. Early scenes of Mantoa within her humble abode find her surrounded by almost iridescent blues, furthering a sense of a kind of reawakening, as though she has just emerged from a lake. The very lack of colour in her widow’s clothes means that she becomes a kind of walking silhouette when outside; delineated always against the verdant yellows and greens of the gorgeous countryside. Through this Mosese makes us understand the value of Mantoa’s world. It is as though she is recast as nature’s widow. A totem or emblem for what may soon be lost across the appropriately named Weeping Plains.
Frustrations make themselves known, be it Mantoa’s own embittered insistence that grief is a “senseless suffering” (adroitly putting her finger on its numbing sensation) or when a sheep shearer becomes over-zealous in his work and threatens to harm the beast. What should be made clear is that this isn’t a film about activism or taking a stand, at least, not in the traditional sense. It does not follow the path of the eco-thriller. A couple of sudden, shocking acts of violence aside, this is more a depiction of grief, anger and the defiance that rises in the human spirit when a way of life is threatened. Burial navigates a contemplative terrain, in which the major sea change is internalised. It’s about a change of attitude. A new beginning within a cycle of behaviour. Resilience.
On the soundtrack, an intermittent sonic miasma is conjured by Yu Miyashita, one that brings to mind the peripheral swirls of Kid A/Amnesiac era Radiohead, or the formless and even agitated passages in Mica Levi’s scores. It’s an intriguing counterpoint to the imagery and a rejoinder to the assumption that African cinema is or should be any one thing. Still, for the majority of the picture Mosese favours quietude, letting the land and people speak for themselves; the fixation with death and rebirth reminding us – maybe even reassuring us- that everything is transitory.
Mosese’s stance is clear though. By the time we see men in yellow hi-vis outfits swinging axes at a tree, we’ve been fully indoctrinated into his world of muted indignation.
It’s sad that this film has, by necessity, bypassed our cinemas, for one suspects that on a grander scale it would be truly mesmeric. Maybe, in the future, this is a wrong that can be rectified. In the meantime, don’t dawdled on it.