A Fable from Lesotho

Mary Twala Mhlongo in Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019)

Along with Vatican City and San Marino, Lesotho is one of three enclaved countries in the world, an independent state completely surrounded by South Africa. Filmmaker and visual artist Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese grew up in Hlotse, a market town in the north of Lesotho, before moving to Berlin. With his documentary Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You. (2019), Mosese addressed his self-exile “while offering a broader meditation on the legacy of colonialism and Christianity in Africa, and a startling vision of hope for the continent’s rebirth,” as Christopher Vourlias wrote when introducing his interview with Mosese for Variety. “I am a part of Berlin but I know I don’t belong there,” says the filmmaker. “I belong to Lesotho and yet I am not a part of it. I am spaceless. I create better from this formless state because I can see better as an outsider.”

The title of Mosese’s new feature, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, outlines the set-up. Opening with a narrator (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) playing a lesiba, a stringed wind instrument, the fable-like story centers on Mantoa, an eighty-year-old widow played by Mary Twala Mhlongo, who later appeared in Beyoncé’s Black Is King before passing away last year. When Mantoa learns that her son has died in a South African mine, she begins preparations for her own death. Her plans are thwarted, though, when news spreads through her village that the close-knit community will have to leave for the cities to make way for the construction of a dam. Mantoa will lead the local resistance.

When Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri saw This Is Not a Burial at Sundance in 2020, just weeks before the pandemic hit, he was “struck” by “Mhlongo’s sheer life force. Though she is playing a character submerged in grief and overwhelmed by her own impending mortality, there’s also stubborn, bedrock vitality to her performance. Black-clad and implacable, she’s filmed almost like an avenging angel.”

Dispatching to Filmmaker from Sundance, Abby Sun found This Is Not a Burial to be “an accomplished film” but also that a few “familiar plot devices, overdone sound design that features repetitive sounds in crucial scenes, a smattering of experimental visuals in memory-flashbacks, and the Academy ratio all fit the height of current international arthouse tropes, a disappointing aspect of a film that sometimes genuinely surprised.”

But in Artforum, Anthony Hawley draws comparisons to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Angela Schanelec, and Pedro Costa, while in the Notebook, Ela Bittencourt is “reminded of the distinct force of another filmmaker who so poignantly documented the tragedy but also the creative, intellectual force of the African continent: the Senegalese master, Djibril Diop Mambéty. Senegal and Lesotho are distant on the map, yet Mosese seems to drink from the same creative spring as his predecessor. Similarly to Linguère Ramatou, in Mambéty’s Hyènes (1992), Mosese’s Mantoa is an extraordinary woman whose angry refusal to bow down to fate haunts you long after you’ve seen it.”

In the New York Times, Nicolas Rapold points out that the press notes drop “the word ‘cryptic’ but, after a year of global loss from COVID-19, the need to mourn the dead properly couldn’t feel more immediate and recognizable.” This Is Not a Burial premiered in Venice in 2019 and picked up a special jury award at Sundance in 2020 as well as several more prizes as it wound its way through the festival circuit. It opened virtually in the States last Friday and will open wider across the country tomorrow.

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