Stuff of Legend: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection”
Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese has slowly been building up a reputation on the festival circuit. Although he made a feature in 2007, he’s disavowed it as a rookie mistake and essentially started over with his 2012 short “Loss of Innocence.” In 2019, he completed two films: the experimental Mother I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You and the more accessible narrative feature This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection.
A perusal of his shorts’ titles reveals running themes: “For Those Whose God Is Dead”; “Behemoth: Or the Game of God.” Born in the tiny African country of Lesotho (which is completely surrounded by South African land), and though he now lives in Berlin, he set This Is Not a Burial in his homeland. It’s a complex reflection on religion, maternity, and death. For starters, it takes place in a village named Nasaretha by European colonialists, who ignored the original residents’ name, the Plains of Weeping. Mother I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You was addressed directly to Mosese’s real-life mother, while Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), the hero of This Is Not a Burial, is a mom mourning the death of her son. His funeral takes place near the film’s beginning, interrupting her plans for her own. But she soon learns that the entire village is expected to pick up and move, making way for a dam that will flood the town. In her role as guardian of Nasaretha’s traditions — symbolized by its graves — she encourages the town to resist Lesotho’s politicians’ ideas of progress.
Mantoa’s story is initially told as though it were a myth taking place at some point in the past — in fact, it’s called “the year of the Red Dust.” In the film’s second shot, a camera pans slowly around a room where a storyteller (Jerry Mofokeng Wa) sits. He alternates between reciting a version of Mantoa’s tale and playing the lesiba — a long, thin instrument that looks like a flute but sounds like a distorted harmonica. The film updates African oral storytelling traditions, as well as treats events taking place in the present as the material of legend. Mantoa comes across as a three-dimensional woman — Twala’s steely performance brings out her firm determination — but she also feels like an archetype.
This Is Not a Burial has an immediate sensual appeal thanks to its cinematography and music. The scene with the storyteller mixes bright, gaudy blue and yellow lights. The characters’ clothes are notably colorful, contrasting with the exteriors that were often shot in misty mornings captured in pale, green tones. Mosese films his country with a love and care that bleeds through in his images. Yu Miyashita’s score takes orchestral sounds and puts them through reverb and other effects, sometimes cranking them so loud that they break up into noise. The film places some of his most dramatic music over seemingly banal images. For example, strings swell as Mantoa sits outside, surrounded by a flock of sheep, or when she rests in a chair, lit only by a candle. It’s used to express emotion in scenes where the characters remain silent, despite the turbulence they’re experiencing.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is full of references to Christianity. The plan to flood Nasaretha evokes the book of Genesis (as well as the plot of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life). A boy named Lasaro is killed. But the movie also points out that the religion is a colonial imposition on Africa. While having his head shaved, one man ponders the fact that Lesotho’s spears were melted down and turned into church bells, saying “Interesting that they didn’t just surrender their spears but their gods.” However, This Is Not a Burial’s ultimate concerns are the cycles of colonialist and post-colonialist exploitation. The notion of a community being told to move in order to preserve itself has all kinds of contemporary resonances — the “refugee crisis” in North Africa and the Middle East, climate change. This Is Not a Burial brings up Christian ideas again in its final moments to suggest the possibility of one woman saving her community. If Africans have been treated like dirt by the rest of the world and, often, by each other cyclically, resistance to this process also reoccurs.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection streams during Film at Lincoln Center’s New York African Film Festival from Feb. 4th to 14th.
The movie opens theatrically in the United States on April 6th.