By HELIO NGUANE, PRECIOUS ‘MAMAZEUS’ NWOGU & ADHAM YOUSSEF
These reviews emanate from the Talent Press initiative, part of the Talents Durban filmmakers’ mentorship programme, presented by the Durban FilmMart Institute. Each article reflects the opinion of the critic involved. All films are available as part of the programme for the 2021 Durban International Film Festival.
When loving is a crime
Film: I Am Samuel – Review by Hélio Nguane
What is it like to love in a hostile environment? Just 2:20 minutes into Peter Murimi’s documentary, I Am Samuel, we realise that love can be synonymous with lynching. In Kenya, loving someone of the same sex is a crime. In addition to the repressive mechanisms of the state, members of the LGBTQI community are harassed with stones and insult and bruises to the face and the ego. Despite this hostility, the protagonist Samuel dares to love his partner Alex. Peter Murimi’s documentary chronicles this relationship in a little over an hour. But who is Samuel? He is a simple man of modest means. He grew up on a farm in rural Kenya and came of age amidst the harsh traditions and pentecostal leanings of his household. Newly independent, he moves to Nairobi in search of new directions for his life. He comes out as homosexual, joins a small community and falls in love with Alex. He tightens his belt as he struggles. There are threats of violence and rejection. In addition to society, Samuel has to face his father, a preacher from a local church who doesn’t understand why his son is not yet married after attaining a certain age. Peter Murimi is meticulous in portraying this tale. In addition to capturing the love story of Samuel and Alex, he is concerned with measuring the society barometer that the story takes place within. Filming over five years, the director immerses himself in Samuel’s world, penetrates the interior of his life and eases himself into his protagonist’s headspace. Samuel walks a tightrope, trying to find harmony between the various strata of his life, but it is conflicting to exist as himself, and Murimi is in tune with this. One of the aspects of the film that draws immediate attention is the sound design. The sound work brings the necessary atmosphere to the narration of this rich and intimate documentary. Like the Chilean film director Miguel Littín, Peter Murimi uses his camera to portray a clandestine adventure. Murimi invests in open shots when necessary, but like Littin, his strength is the detail.
An intimate study of suffering and redemption
Film: I, Mary – Review by Precious ‘Mamazeus’ Nwogu
Aliki Saragas-Georgiou’s documentary I, Mary follows the remarkable story of albinism activist Regina Mary Ndlovu, a South African woman who surmounts great tragedies to find her voice. From its opening scene, the film commands audience attention. Ndlovu, the central character, opens with a narration of what it means to be both albino and a woman in Africa. Her experience is peppered with gory tales of ritual killings and fears of mutilation influenced by superstitious beliefs that albino body parts are good luck charms. Ndlovu’s introductory accounts, brutal as they are, come as no surprise. News reports every other day confirm this reality. People born with albinism in these parts are at risk of suffering sexual violence and being murdered. I, Mary, however, pushes beyond the statistics with its survivor account of an endlessly inspiring protagonist. Ndlovu’s story is one of immense tragedy, tracking her experience with sexual abuse and feelings of self-loathingand suicide and finally, salvation. Recounting her first experience of sexual abuse, Ndlovu bravely shares how her eight-year-old self was lured by a much older family acquaintance with the promise of sweets. Her parents remarkably, never discuss this incident. Raped and silenced, Ndlovu continues with even more graphic details of sexual abuse, events that her young self interpreted as acts of mercy and love. Saragas-Georgiou does a fine job presenting Ndlovu’s story of pain and redemption, alternating it with scenes of Ndlovu’s life as a talk show host and activist while demonstrating clearly the visual limitations of people with albinism. “I cannot see beyond my toes,” Ndlovu says, as she shares her struggles with school on account of this disability. Despite this, Ndlovu has amassed a stack of certificates and technological tools to aid her use of social media. A particularly moving scene that brings the documentary to its climax has Ndlovu in a difficult conversation with her mother, where she reveals that her mother had hit her when she first discovered that Ndlovu was raped at eight years old. The moments that follow are cathartic for both Ndlovu and the audience. The culture of silence forced on victims of rape and sexual violence has been the greatest hindrance to justice and I, Mary scores precious points for highlighting this menace as well as the effects of victim-blaming. Beyond the documentary’s intriguing story is the filmmaker’s style. Ever so often, Saragas-Georgiou attempts to push motifs to the consciousness of her audience – water, for instance. Ndlovu sometimes floats underwater, as a way of expressing surrender and perhaps a passage. Only when she finds her silver lining is she truly able to succumb to her pain. While this presentation is cliched, it falls in sync with the narrator’s experience. Although artistic representation is not a strong point of I, Mary, the film successfully drives its themes home and is worthy of appreciation.
Understanding the exile of a militant parent
Film: The Colonel’s Stray Dogs – Review by Adham Youssef
As a child, Libyan director Khalid Shamis watched his father, Ashur, constantly appear on British and Arabic TV as a pundit, agitating against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The images presented on screen were often darkened or blurred to protect Ashur’s identity. Recognition could have led to assassination attempts by Gaddafi’s notorious well-travelled death squads. In his documentary, The Colonel’s Stray Dogs, Khalid tries to understand the complicated journey of his father, a former freedom fighter and agitator, now working as a journalist and pundit. Throughout the film, Khalid attempts to ‘un-blur’ the image he once had of his father. In the process, he parses Libya’s history, starting from the 1960s and the takeover by Arab Nationalist leader Muammar Gaddafi. The film also establishes the state of terror that the Gaddafi dictatorship established, one that ended with his demise in the Libyan desert following the 2011 uprising. The rich collection of rare featured footage showcases some of Ashur’s radical interviews and the training he received alongside his comrades in Chad. The young activists organised and lobbied support in other Arab countries even as some of their allies were arrested and publicly executed in Libya. These images provide a context for how violent Gaddafi’s regime came to be. In between this footage, Khalid takes his camera into his family home in a peaceful suburban London neighbourhood. As the director attempts to get his father to talk about the past, he delves into the personal to understand the political. Taped letters, a popular communication tool for Arab immigrants and their loved ones, describe how a desire to reconnect with family and friends drove the resistance. The elder Shamis represents thousands of Islamist political activists forced into exile from different Arab countries who are still trying to confront the political leadership in their nations. In one scene, he talks about how, in the 1980s, his comrades believed that change must be achieved by “any means necessary”. Later, the camera takes us to Ashur’s library, where there are translated volumes of Sayyid Qutb, the alleged Karl Marx of radical Islamism. The director’s excitement to fully comprehend his father’s exile, plus his sense of belonging to a cause, is quite catching. This is apparent in his eager questioning when he comes across forged passports or top-secret documents. But this excitement is met with steady and careful answers from the father, whose militancy has now softened to embrace more peaceful tools of resistance. News confirming Gaddafi’s death was met by euphoria by a good number of Libyans, Ashur included. He would return home in 2011 to serve as an advisor to the newly established government, only to be forced out again – this time, alienated from the very cause he spent years in exile fighting for. Ashur’s journey is the entry point to The Colonel’s Stray Dogs, but the film is essentially about Khalid’s desire to understand his family’s exile as a step closer to grasping his own status as a British-South African artist with an Arab Muslim background. This film is proof that sometimes, understanding our parents’ struggles might lure us into accepting our own.