In Sesotho with English subtitles (2019, running time 2h)

A film based around plans for the disinterment of family members is about as far away from the Hollywood mainstream as it is possible to get (though there was Coco I guess).

Written and directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection opens, mythical, atmospheric and mysterious, with the line: “This place. Legend says it used to be called the plains of weeping.” Foreign missionaries in contrast, we learn, called it Nazareth.

Soon we are introduced to an old woman, Mantoa (played by Mary Twala Mhlongo, who died in 2020). She is so worn and thin as to be, at first sight, virtually genderless, crying out for her recently deceased adult son. Her husband is long dead, her daughter and grandchild too, and her face is deeply lined and etched with grief. With this final loss, the loss of her son, in a South African mining accident, her life has become meaningless.

The unnamed narrator (played by Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha), accompanied by a wooden, piping instrument, the lesiba (hear what they sound like here), informs us that “now that her son was dead she didn’t cry, nor look up to the heavens. Besides God, reality too felt further and further away“.

Putting on her best dress, Mantoa goes to bed and waits for death to come for her in the house her husband built, though it remains punishingly absent. Her grief enfolds her completely, and she takes what amounts to a vow of silence, “regarding God and
nature in silent contempt”.

This is sad film, but also a film that is gorgeous to look at, set among the beautiful and ethereal mountains of rural Lesotho, which is surrounded on all sides by the territory of South Africa. Mantoa’s small house is shot with painterly care, too, with its sparse interior, its deeply coloured internal walls contrasting with the yellow flowers to the side. The camera lingers lovingly on the detailing of her ornate, black lace, high-collared dress, while all the time that haunting, piping music plays.

Mantoa, speaking out to complain about the state of the neglected cemetery, learns that the villagers, who have lived peaceably for many years, are to be forcibly resettled; their land is to be flooded and a dam built. The Ministry will provide funding to those who choose to move the graves of their family.

The old woman unexpectedly finds within her an untapped spirit of defiance, which she uses to inspire her local community. She angrily, unsparingly, ignores the exhortations of the local priest, telling him bitterly that there was no meaning in the deaths of her husband, her children, her grandchild, and no meaning in the death of his own wife who “will die over and over again for the rest of your remaining life. That’s grief. It’s a senseless suffering, there’s no meaning to it.

Nevertheless, in an impassioned address, Mantoa expressed how she feels attached with an inviolable bond to the soil that contains generations of her relatives, “their umbilical cords and the placentas of her mother“, and asserts that the whole land would need to be exhumed in order for them to be able to leave it. I’ve since learnt that in parts of Africa the tombstones of ancestors can serve as a sort of marker of land ownership.

Meanwhile, the villagers are increasingly afraid of losing their livelihoods. The land they live and work on has been leased on trust for generations, eroding any sense that they lack official rights of ownership over it – while they have already witnessed the destruction of other areas of the local environment to make way for the march of (unwanted but inevitable) infrastructural development.

The film is a totemic meditation on life and death and the imposition of unsought change, and successfully re-creates a way of life that is threatened by the pervasive drive towards modernisation, while also evoking a more spiritual world, where the dead continue to occupy an important space alongside the living.

It is a beautifully shot, lyrical film, filled with arresting imagery of the natural world, with enormous skies taking up most the screen, and those astonishing mountains. It is a film that is slow and sorrowful – and was described by 2020’s Africa in Motion film festival as gentle, but I didn’t find it gentle, I frequently found it brutal.

In 2020 the film was a worthy winner of a special jury prize at Sundance for “visionary filmmaking”, and it has been nominated by Lesotho in the category of best international feature for the 2021 Oscars. It is the first time that tiny Lesotho has entered the competition. This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection is, no doubt, not for everyone, but I for one am glad to have watched it.

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