Mother is both brutal and poetic, a contention with self and homeland, and an introduction to one of contemporary cinema’s most exciting voices.
When Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s film This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection was released earlier this year, this critic mistakenly identified it as his “debut feature.” An unfortunate lack of due diligence, which thankfully has been rectified with the belated release of Mosese’s 2019 essay film Mother, I Am Suffocating. This is My Last Film About You., which functions as both an angry screed and an abstract, poetic prologue to Burial. Paired, the films represent one artist’s conflicted, even pained feelings toward his homeland and current immigration status (Born in Lesotho, a small, landlocked country surrounded entirely by South Africa, Mosese currently works and resides in Berlin). Mother has virtually no traditional narrative, instead joining together stark, high-contrast black and white photography with a spoken-word soundtrack that gradually accumulates into a powerful lamentation of a world gone horribly awry. It resembles in some ways the early work of Phillipe Garrel and the “Zanzibar Group,” where religious symbolism and cryptic musings portended the upheavals of the May ’68 protests. Mother is more nakedly personal than that, with the narration repeating variations of the titular phrase in a direct confrontation with the African continent. For Mosese, the phrasing is both literal and figurative, and he parses his feelings with a barely suppressed anger bordering on rage. It’s unabashedly critical of his homeland, certainly, but also a rawly honest attempt to justify his own immigration to Europe. Smartly, Mosese doesn’t let himself off the hook, so to speak, instead allowing the torrents of contradictory emotions to play out at length. In his director’s statement, Mosese confirms that “by personifying it [Africa] as a mother, I might have allowed myself to point a damning finger and see her through the pure eyes of a child.”
All of this unfolds over images of a woman dragging a huge cross across a barren landscape, eventually entering a city and continuing down busy streets. This is interspersed with footage of people going about their business, milling about, while occasional closeups of hands knitting fill the screen. Scenes of sheep being herded butt up against the woman’s slow journey, conjuring up all sorts of biblical implications, although it’s never clear if Mosese is suggesting that he’s the Jesus figure carrying this weight or if it’s colonialist Christianity crushing this specific Black body. That it could be both simultaneously speaks to the expansive nature of his project while also suggesting the political can help offset limitations of this kind of arch-poetic symbolist filmmaking. The images themselves are frequently breathtaking, in what appears to be a mixture of 16mm film and digital video. Mosese finds subtle gradations of grayscale in his monochromatic schema, while images of faces and hands reveal the fine textures of skin and veins. He’s clearly fascinated by people, even if he is largely ambivalent about the societal structures surrounding them. Ultimately, the woman will lay down the cross while glaring directly into the camera, and a lamb is slaughtered, a fitting end to Mosese’s journey away from a fractured land and a willful provocation toward his audience.
Mosese begins Mother with an epigraph that states “out of the ruins and ashes, I’ll knit for you a new face and a new pair of eyes. Everything from here will look beautiful.” This is Not a Burial could be said to represent that “new pair of eyes,” as Mosese would in fact return to Lesotho, despite Mother‘s bold declaration of a title and gruesome ending, and find ravishing colors and a fierce determination to honor the old ways in the face of impending cultural gentrification. Mosese has proffered a definition of what he calls “Barefooted cinema,” one “based on pure reaction and impulse, be it vile or holy… naked and stripped of artifice… this intuitive style is a raw exploration of psyche, dreams, my relationship to my home, and by extension my own subjectivity.” Based on his two feature films, which travel a path from anger and regret to something like grace, Mosese has staked a claim as one of the most exciting figures in contemporary cinema.