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The Battle of the Sacred Tree

An independent-minded young woman takes on village hypocrites in "The Battle of the Sacred Tree," a Kenyan debut feature whose breeziness looks particularly good in the wake of the similarly themed, blowsy "The Scarlet Letter." While a tad too low on filmic/narrative polish to court much arthouse biz, delightful pic is a good bet for fests and programmers looking to fill contempo African or feminist-issue slots.

An independent-minded young woman takes on village hypocrites in “The Battle of the Sacred Tree,” a Kenyan debut feature whose breeziness looks particularly good in the wake of the similarly themed, blowsy “The Scarlet Letter.” While a tad too low on filmic/narrative polish to court much arthouse biz, delightful pic is a good bet for fests and programmers looking to fill contempo African or feminist-issue slots.

Awkwardly staged opening has feisty Mumbi fleeing her abusive spouse Mwangi, who figures the “bridal price” he paid makes regular beatings a conjugal right. “He thinks I’m his goat,” she complains to her father upon completing the journey home from urban Nairobi, with subteen daughter in tow. But dad is unsympathetic at first, as are backbiting femme members of the local Christian Women’s Union. “A woman who cannot keep her husband” automatically is “a prostitute” in their eyes.

Mumbi doesn’t give a whit, further scandalizing locals by accepting barmaid duties in the local beer hall — another point of outrage for the busybodies. Their main concern however, is destruction of the Mugumo tree. This enormous fig-bearing tree is one left over from pre-Christian-colonized days, and most villagers still quietly respect its mythological “powers.”

Comedy brews to a climax as the biddies, spurned in their petitioning efforts by fellow citizens and authorities, try to cut down the offensive tree themselves.

While director Wanjiru Kinyanjui doesn’t have the chops to milk a slapstick setpiece like this for max impact, her loose, good-humored approach carries matters overall quite nicely. She stops shy of suggesting any overt faith in Kikuyu religious traditions, but does let p.o.v. make a strong case for some “old ways,” while putting a good light on select new ones (divorce, female independence).

Supporting players etch a vivid village cross-section without need of pro acting. As the plucky heroine, Margaret Nyacheo is a vivacious charmer, especially in scenes when bemusedly fending off an ardent (yet questionably gender-role enlightened) former suitor. Lensing is brightly colored if somewhat sloppy of composition and focus, rather grainy for 35 mm. Editing transitions are likewise sloppy, but film’s appeal doesn’t rely on tech sophistication. Gently rolling, good-time score by Mamadou Mbaye rates more importance in setting mood. Dialogue is mostly in English, subtitled elsewhere.

The Battle of the Sacred Tree

(KENYAN-GERMAN)

Production: A Birne-Film production. Produced by Kristov Brandli. Directed, written by Wanjiru Kinyanjui, based on a short story by Barbara Kimenye.

Crew: Camera (color), Francois Kotlarski; editor, Eva Lopez Echegoyen; music, Mamadou Mbaye; sound, Hans-Joachim Beckmann. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 16, 1995. Running time: 82 MIN.

With: With: Margaret Nyacheo (Mumbi), Catherine Kariuki, Roslynn Kimani, Titi Wainaina.

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