Lesotho is fondly known as the Kingdom in the Sky, as its mountainous terrain elevates it more than 1 000m above sea level. This small enclave of a country, completely landlocked by South Africa, has a population of about two million, making it one of the smallest states in the world. But out of these peaks has emerged a feature film, set in the world of its landscape and written and directed by one of its own.
Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection has made history as the country’s first official submission to the Best International Feature Film category at the upcoming Oscars.
In a country with no semblance of film culture, Mosese’s film getting this far is an impressive feat. But it is even more so when one considers that there is not a single cinema in Lesotho. To meet the Oscars’ eligibility criteria for nomination, the film is screening for a week in South Africa. Speaking to Film Comment magazine before the Sundance Film Festival in February, Mosese said: “Where I grew up, there was nobody who made films. So, you don’t have a reference of someone who can actually make you dream of making movies.”
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a masterful tale of grief, belonging and defiance. It centres on 80-year-old Mosotho matriarch ’Mantoa, portrayed by late South African actress Mary Twala Mhlongo in a towering performance.
The film focuses on ’Mantoa’s reaction to the impending doom her small community faces in the village of Nasareta. Constantly clad in black to signify her period of mourning as a widow, ’Mantoa is also afflicted by the recent deaths of her daughter and granddaughter. On the day her one remaining love – a son working in the mines of neighbouring South Africa – is meant to return, she awaits eagerly, ululating, only to be told that her son has also died.
Overcome with grief, ’Mantoa spends the rest of her days in her small hut, listening to obituaries on the radio, hoping to die. It is when the village leader announces that the residents of ’Mantoa’s village are going to be relocated to make way for a dam that she feels a renewed sense of purpose, even if the price is her life.
A poetic ode drawn from realism
Mosese has crafted a poetic ode to cinema that is breathtaking in its beauty and gut-wrenching in its sombre themes. It is a traditional slow burner, fragmented in its narrative structure but anchored in part by veteran South African actor Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha as the brooding lesiba player whose ghoulish and mythic narration holds the story together.
Cryptic and singular in shape, Mosese’s direction offers a textured picture expertly shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio that enables the film to show the beautiful landscapes of the Lesotho highlands without taking too much away from the focal point of the story because of its limited width. And the cinematography, helmed by Pierre de Villiers, dazzles in its play of light, landscapes and close-ups of faces.
Although a fictitious account, the film remains true to Lesotho and the lived experiences of the Basotho. The accuracy of the start of the conflict that arises in the village is commendable. Mosese draws from real-life scenarios to build the bedrock of his story, which is devoid of stereotypes or caricature.
Water is one of Lesotho’s major exports to neighbouring South Africa. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project began in the 1980s with plans to construct large dams to feed into the Vaal River over the border. This meant villages in the earmarked highlands areas being relocated or, more accurately, displaced.
It is in the throes of this predicament that ’Mantoa’s resolve finds expression as she, having lived through the deaths and burials of so many of her loved ones, refuses to yield to the authoritative demands of those wanting to displace her community.
Mosese and his team have described the making of the film as onerous at times. Weather conditions in the highlands were unforgiving during principal filming and shooting on location presented logistical difficulties, to the extent that elderly Twala Mhlongo had to be carried or transported on horseback at times.
These challenges, however, did not deter the ambitious director from bringing to life a masterful offering that pushes the boundaries of cinematic possibility as the first feature film from Lesotho.
Mosese’s use of barren land to denote the emptiness in the motives of authoritative bureaucrats, as well as the symbolism in the film, particularly in the exploration of ’Mantoa’s creased face, draws visual parallels to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The atmospheric, eerie loneliness of the film bears similarities to Swedish auteur Igmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Thematically, there’s a common thread with Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyenas, which also has an elderly woman as the lead, one on a sole crusade for justice after returning to her now neocolonial native village.
On the surface, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection deals with loss, grief, identity and the resolve to fight for what is right, while simultaneously presenting a sharp critique of colonialism, modernity, corruption and bureaucracy.
Road to the Oscars
Mosese’s film has received a number of international accolades. In addition to opening the Durban International Film Festival in September, it has won the Special Jury Award for Visionary Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States, the Grand Prize at the Taipei Film Festival in Taiwan, the Best Film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Firebird Young Cinema Competition in China and the New Waves Award at the La Roche-sur-Yon Film Festival in France, among others.
Twala Mhlongo’s searing performance as ’Mantoa has earned her a number of individual awards, including for best interpretation at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal, Canada, and Best Actress at the 44th Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Firebird Young Cinema Competition. It’s devastating that she died in July and has been unable to see the strides her swansong performance is making. The acting in the film overall is exceptional, with Makhaola Ndebele, Tseko Monaheng and Siphiwe Nzima-Ntskhe delivering memorable portrayals in their supporting roles.
After an illustrious film-festival run, the producers and director have set their sites on the Academy Awards. The route to This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection getting the Oscar nomination and hopefully winning the coveted award is not a far-fetched dream, but the road is still long.
Last year, 93 countries submitted 93 films in the Best International Feature Film category. The first round involves accepting the submissions that qualify. In the second, the Academy’s international feature screening committee watches the films over a two-month period that ends in early February 2021. They will trim these submissions down to seven feature films, with three more chosen by the Academy’s executive committee. These 10 selections will be announced on 9 February 2021. The rest of the Academy’s membership then views these 10 films to choose the final five nominees for the Best International Feature Film award.
It is a fervent hope, not only of the film producers and crew, but of many in Lesotho, South Africa and all of Africa that this timely and timeless film will triumph at the Oscars. Mosese’s hauntingly beautiful film is a visceral examination of grief and belonging, an ode to Lesotho’s landscape told against the backdrop of a community threatened with displacement, a cinematic representation of a reality that continues to haunt our times.
This article was first published by New Frame.