This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is the perfect afro-existentialist film, not because of the existential interstice implied in its title, but because of how it paints mystical and metaphysical pictures about the different types of death.
‘European surrealism is empirical African surrealism is mystical and metaphysical,’ Léopold Sédar Senghor once wrote. Poet, African surrealist, and the first president of Senegal, Senghor was trying to say that the existence of African thought, expressed intellectually, countered Western tropes of reality. It also combined with the essence of African narratives, mystical and metaphysical, giving rise to the Afro-existential and the Afrosurreal.
Frida Kahlo, the legendary Mexican surrealist painter, echoed Senghor when she averred that, ‘Afro-surrealism sees that all “others” who create from their actual, lived experiences, are surrealist.’
I’m a bit more cautious than that. It’s 2023, and art by the ‘others’ are more Westernized than Frida could’ve predicted. But now and then my eyes are averted to the sort of work pioneers of Afro-surrealism championed.
ANGUISH THROUGH AN EXISTENTIALIST LENS
This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Ressurection, a drama directed by Jeremiah Lemohang Mosese and set in Lesotho, was recommended to me by a dear friend, Gahee, who lives in South Korea. I watched the film exactly one year ago, somewhere in Rwanda, as the first of an epic triple feature that included Ahmet Uluçay’s Boats Out of Watermelon Rinds (2004) and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939). Existentialist and surrealist tropes are woven together in Mosese’s arthouse tragedy.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, existentialist thought took root, and seized the intellectual consciousness of Europe. Ostensibly, Existentialism explores the problem of existence itself. It is, therefore, the investigation of existence, or the investigation of being.
Existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, all pondered on the problem of existence. These existentialists, having settled that ‘existence’ is a phenomenon primarily experienced from the particular and individual to the external and collective, soon faced the myriad and diverse possibilities through which the individual could select an experience, and commit his or herself to that experience. And at the heart of this experience arose the question of grief.
How does the individual existentialist manage grief, having cut himself loose from the institutional backbone of religion and existence in the afterlife? In what supernatural entity could the existentialist find respite from the anguish of existence? This question soon seeped into expression, in novels, like Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, in paintings such as Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, in music, and even in architecture. Films like Fantastic Planet, The Seventh Seal, Waking Life, explored existentialism through motion pictures. They had in common a yearning for understanding by creating a reality within reality, while employing themes of anguish, colonization, tradition, spirituality, and death.
The opening scene of Mosese’s film introduces a face full of anguish and from its lips plays the lesiba, a traditional wind-stringed instrument of Lesotho’s Basotho people. An ancient storyteller squats within the confines of a decaying urban jungle in the ‘future’. In between cutbacks, his haunting tune sets the mood of the film while the camera sets the pace, slowly revealing the isolation of this antiquated existence straddling two worlds.
The storyteller narrates a story about life in the last days of a town called the Plains of Weeping. When the protagonist, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), a widow, loses her last surviving child and family, to an accident in the mines of Johannesburg, the despair of realizing life’s absurdity and the brutality of God’s benign indifference to her existence shock her into a vow of silence. She loses her will to live and refuses to speak. The mountains, valleys, trees and flowers of the Plains of Weeping are reminiscent of Claude Monet’s paintings, but Mantoa stands alone, abandoned. Her gaze is blank, her eyes pierce empty space. They reveal what her lips do not say: life is meaningless, beauty is meaningless. This abandonment is the loneliness that atheists initially feel when they realize there is no God to prescribe a meaning to life, and no guidance for people on how to live.
Mantoa’s abandonment is complemented by the controlled frames of the pictures. The camera is fixed, its gaze unflinching. But in one of the film’s best moments, the camera moves with Mantoa as she dons an elegant dress (a gift from her late husband) and dances with her hand locked around his invisible waist. This foreshadowed a breakaway from the nihilistic to the existential.
AFRO-EXISTENTIALISM AND RESURRECTION
In furtherance of her plans to die as soon as possible, Mantoa begins to make arrangements to be buried in the ancestral graveyard. All is well until she hears that the villagers are to be forcibly resettled in the city, the graveyard relocated, and a dam built over the village. Mantoa’s despair, which had left her nothing to live for, now fuel a Sisyphean sense of responsibility, and not even the feelings of the Reverend or rumours of her being a witch can deter her from her singular purpose: to be buried with her family.
Mantoa rolls the rock everywhere, challenging even the bureaucracy. Her transformation unfolds in subtle, cinematic ways: from the early shots depicting her abandonment to when we see her surrounded by a flock of white sheep, symbolizing community and solidarity. There are striking similarities with Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion, in Existentialism is a Humanism, that anguish leads people to realize that their actions guide ‘humanity’ and allows them to make judgments about others based on their attitude towards freedom. Mantoa, in being-for-herself, uses her despair to embrace resurrection and take meaningful action in full acceptance of whatever consequences may arise as a result, in her little town in Lesotho. This is what makes the film a seminal work of Afro-existentialism.
In the final arc of the film, Mantoa is once again framed in isolation, but her stance is defiant. Midnight closes in around her, but she refuses to go gently. Her essence is captured via intense close-ups of her wrinkled face, reminiscent of Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s solemn presence in Carl Theodoe Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. But in Mantoa’s world, the mountain she rolls the rock up is capitalism, not feudalism—though both are renowned for their brutal retaliation to collective resistance. Arsonists and murderers soon creep into the Plains of Weeping and tears flow again.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is the perfect afro-existentialist film, not because of the existential interstice implied in its title, but because of how it paints mystical and metaphysical pictures about the different types of death: death of the self, death of the soil, the death of society. As inventive and innovative as any Africa picture released since Djibril Diop Mambety’s (1973) Touki Bouki (also released as The Journey of the Hyena), This Is Not a Burial’s biggest success as a work of afro-existentialism, is in showing us how, at the edge of extinction, life in the Plains of Weeping (or Nazaretha) experiences a resurrection because Mantoa takes responsibility for her own life and actions, instead of making deterministic excuses. This is a little piece of art from Lesotho, but its message is a useful lesson for today’s Afrocentric artists and scholars⎈
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