Ambitious in scope and intent, “Cosmic Africa” charts young South African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe’s quixotic quest to reconcile science and myth. Documentarians Craig and Damon Foster (“The Great Dance”) follow Medupe from ancient monoliths in the Egyptian Sahara to prehistoric cave paintings in Namibia to towering cliff dwellings in Mali. Fascinating and studded with sumptuous imagery, pic deserves bigscreen showing before settling in for the long-term on cable and homevid, but may be deemed too “educational” for its own good.
The Fosters constantly juxtapose the modern with the primordial. In legend-miming fx, a girl throws a handful of ashes into the sky and creates the Milky Way. Medupe opens his laptop in the desert next to a stone formation that long predates Stonehenge and maps out what the heavens would have looked like from that point 7000 years ago to ascertain how the long-defunct Naptans of the Western Desert charted the sun.
Medupe’s arrival in a Ju/’hoansi village in Namibia, home to hunter-gatherers who are direct descendants of prehistoric cave painters, is timed to coincide with a solar eclipse. Medupe joyously encourages the villagers to use his telescope to study the phenomenon. Following the villagers’ initial fears that his telescope has eaten up the sun, Medupe swaps stories with the local shaman Kxao Tami and his shaman-in-training wife Tcu!xo. Indeed, Medupe’s scientific explanation sounds neither more nor less fantastical than the tribesmen’s belief that the moon darkens and disappears when celestial tigers wrap their tails around it.
In the honeycombed cliff dwellings of Mali in 118° heat, everyday rituals are determined by the movements of the stars. The agricultural Dogon still live in accordance with cosmic rhythms: The position of Venus or the appearance of the Pleiades, interpreted by holy man Annaye Doumbo, determine when women leave on an hour-long trek uphill to fetch water, when crops are planted and harvested, and when festivals and purification rites begin or end.
The Fosters vary their presentation according to the geographic and ethnographic lay of the land. In the barren reaches of the desert, superimposed mirages of fire and water suggest ghosts of lost civilizations, while close, observational back-and-forth intercutting characterize scenes of the Ju/’hoani village during the eclipse. Images of giant white eggs, mist and flowing water figure in the mythological recreations of the Dogon legends.
“Cosmic Africa” was exec-produced by Ann Duryan, widow of Carl Sagan through their Cosmos studios, and film’s dual scientific and spiritual focus lies very much within the couple’s pioneering tradition. However, filmmakers rely exclusively on Medupe’s anecdotal voiceover narration for all explication, a choice that sometimes de-mystifies the legends, and leaves much of the story untold.
Medupe is too modest to tell the whole story: The fact that he was brought up in a poor village under apartheid and attained his exalted scientific position is extraordinary enough, but that he should then choose to take off on a massive expeditionary vision-quest is even more amazing. Upon his return, Medupe apparently embarked on a series of equally remarkable endeavors which are never fully articulated, given his self-deprecatory emphasis on everything but himself. Here, as elsewhere, the addition of a third-person to narrate part of the docu might have upped the dramatic ante.
Damon Foster’s hi-def lensing looks fantastic in 35mm, the slight sense of unreality boosting pic’s poetic dimension. Grant McLachlan and Barry Donnelly’s rich multi-ethnic music adds immeasurably to the trans-temporal feel.