The Gravedigger’s Wife & other highlights of African cinema
Three feature films at the Toronto International Film Festival spotlight the best and brightest in African cinema.
African cinema has produced some fantastic gems over the past few years that hardly anyone will mention on their year-end lists. Mythical fables like Kati Kati, Luwalu, and Mimosas to political tragedies like The fig tree, Clash, Wulu, and Our Lady of the Nile, films on identity and alienation such as The injury, to personal reflections on the land and colonialism like the two films of Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese Mother I’m choking, it’s my last movie about you and It’s not a funeral, it’s a resurrection – the two masterpieces – this is a continent that is creating some of the best in world cinema right now and with good volume. So naturally I had to research a few African films this year, starting with The Gravedigger’s Wife.
The Gravedigger’s Wife works similar to Ousmanne Sembène’s classic Mandabi, where a husband’s struggles with money are both the whims of an economy that is over his head and the mistreatment and deception by members of his own family. Guled (Omar Abdi) is a gravedigger who needs more money for the cancer treatment of his wife Nasra (Yasmin Warsame). He is ready to go to the village where his family is, but his wife is upset at the idea, so he looks for work nearby. He lives in the outskirts of Djibouti, struggling to find adequate wages for odd jobs.
As a family drama, the film features poignant moments that, while surely cliché in their execution, showcase the caring and empathetic nature of the central character. The Gravedigger’s Wife, by virtue of its title, is aware of its own irony and flaunts it everywhere. A sequence where the gravediggers complain that there are not enough dead in the country highlights the satirical humor that permeates the generally dire atmosphere of this film. Guled and his family are examples of people caught between the hypocrisy of rigid traditions and the crumbling infrastructure of the modern world.
Guled’s escape with Nasra has sparked anger from his family, who reject him and refuse to speak to him. His efforts to make them understand his situation are juxtaposed in The Gravedigger’s Wife with the medical industry and its economic barriers, which prevent saving lives without monetary compensation. Two life systems geared towards adhering to poorly empathetic ways of conduct and rejecting the emotional aspects of human life – love and survival.
Good Madam (Mlungu Wam)
By continuing the prodigious production of African cinema following The Gravedigger’s Wife, Mlungu Wam is a psychological horror film that has sons from both Jordan Peele Get out and the slow subliminal thrillers of Peter Strickland. It’s an interesting combination that captures the ideas of generational racism of a place and time with the technical elements of horror that create a baffling vibe.
One of the grateful parts of Mlungu Wam is that it does not rely on constant visual errors. It’s fine when executed well, but the overuse of dream sequences has been a crutch of recent mediocre horror movies for quite some time now. Instead, this film uses the brilliant performance of Chumisa Cosa (Tsidi) and Nosipho Mtebe (Mavis) to evoke most of her nausea and discomfort. Tsidi and her daughter Winnie (Kunvalethu Jonas Raziya) move into a house where Tsidi grew up. Her mother Mavis is the keeper of the house, a sort of suburban “McMansion” owned by a white lady named Diane.
Jenna Cato Bass’s status as a white woman telling this story (via black screenwriter Babalwa Baartman) about black South Africans is reminiscent of Claire Denis White material. What needs to be included here in any discussion of such films is a conscious understanding that not only the film, but the production operate under different dynamics in the conversations between the filmmaker and the emotional subjects. Even more so for Bass, who decided to shoot the film in a conservative white neighborhood where his actors felt out of place and were subjected to micro-attacks from white residents during filming.
The filming location is very important for the story as it becomes evident that Tsidi and her family are the only blacks in the neighborhood. This isolated white suburb is far from where most of South Africa’s black people live. Tsidi is increasingly haunted by memories of her childhood here, exacerbated by Winnie’s approval of the place and her integration into the White Quarter, which Tsidi believes causes her daughter to lose her own identity.
Bass, who is also the DP of the film, uses the maze-like layout of the house to create a distorting effect. Like Strickland The Duke of Burgundy, noises become a compass for class disparities. The accidental breaking of glass or porcelain, a wealthy woman’s precious valuables, cleaning the floors, the duty of subordinates – all of these sensations come together to create a feeling of not only monotony, but trapping as well. As Winnie notes, “We have to pretend we’re not here even though we are.” What a succinct description of what it’s like to be unwelcome.
Tug of war (Vuta N’Kuvute)
Amil Shivji Tug of war has complex social and racial nuances about liberation movements that most people ignore. It’s a political romance, but on top of that, it’s a film that tries to show, in the simplest terms, that there isn’t really a monoculture in any country. The historical narrative may pave some nations in their struggles for independence, but on the ground there are so many elements involved that are hardly discussed beyond “human rights”.
The heart of the film is a romance between Zanzibar revolutionary Denge and Indian-Zanzibari Yasmin. Indian and Arab peoples existed in many parts of coastal Africa in the south of the continent during European colonial times, and their existence there created a web of racial dynamics much more complex than has been known. never really noticed when it comes to colonialism on the continent. . Tug of war in that sense may be a strange title for the film… there are more than two sides pulling the rope.
Shivji and writer Jenn Cato Bass portray their young revolutionaries defending a valiantly idealistic goal without seeing the forest for the trees. They are understandably skeptical and their attention is on the end result rather than what is really going on around them. Denge meets one of his well-known revolutionary elders who tells him that he and his group cannot alienate Arab and Indian residents as they too live under the rule of the English Imperial Order. Denge responds by saying that Arabs and Indians were businessmen and landowners. He mentions “I thought you were a Marxist”. The elder replied, “But the people are Muslims.
The film’s conception is evoked primarily through the music of the region, and it is as diverse as the people themselves. Song inspired by jazz, traditional African rhythms, but also strongly Bollywood music – what Yasmin listens to on his records while dancing – tells a Zanzibar which is a melting pot. Yes, it is driven by the imperial order and an umbrella ruling British elites, but its cultural complexities also suggest a hope for autonomy and independence, if achieved through collective race and class struggle.