DURBAN–From the arresting opening sequence, in which the reflection of a woman carrying a giant wooden cross shimmers across the surface of a lake, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This is My Last Film About You” embarks on a poetic journey across an unnamed African landscape. Described by the filmmaker as a “lament,” the documentary essay explores his personal attachment to and departure from Lesotho, the small southern African country where he was born, while offering a broader meditation on the legacy of colonialism and Christianity in Africa, and a startling vision of hope for the continent’s rebirth.
Mosese’s debut feature premiered this year in the Berlinale’s Forum section, and screens this week at the Durban Intl. Film Festival. His second film, “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection,” was selected for the Venice Biennale College Cinema in 2018 and will premiere at the 76th Venice Intl. Film Festival. The director spoke to Variety about how the experience of living in Europe has shaped his perceptions about Africa, the potential healing power of art, and why the African continent is “in the process of becoming.”
You were raised in Lesotho but moved to Berlin. How did the experience of being a foreigner, an outsider in a strange land, shape the thoughts and emotions that you explore in a film that you describe as a “lament”?
It didn’t shape them, but it revealed my thoughts. It revealed my self-loathing and rage, love and fear that was seething beneath, inside of me. I am a part of Berlin but I know I don’t belong there, I belong to Lesotho and yet I am not a part of it. I am spaceless. I create better from this formless state because I can see better as an outsider. Creating art from this state of mind is rewarding but it has made me a lost person. I wouldn’t have been able to see my country or Africa as a whole if I was inside it. It took me to be an “outsider” to see the tremendous beauty and tremendous ugliness of it all. I can only create from a place of love or fear. I need to have a violent reaction for me to create. The hate I showed in the film is love expressed backwards.
“Mother” has moments of incredible tenderness, as well as terrible hostility and rage. What did the process of creating this film do for your own ambivalence about Lesotho and Africa?
I saw my country Lesotho, and on a larger scale Africa, as a child sees its mother. It’s okay to be mad and scream. In the end she is my Mother. Despite all the bulls**t, I see her.
Christian iconography is central to the film—most obviously and arrestingly, in the figure of the solitary woman dragging a cross across the landscape. There’s a great deal of pain and suffering in the movie. But of course, the central myth of Christianity – the story of Christ himself – leads to resurrection. The narrator in “Mother” says at one point: “I should build you a new pair of eyes and a new face. Everything will look beautiful from here.” Do you believe in the possibility of rebirth—for your country, for the continent? Can art be a vehicle for that?
I would like to think that as an African continent we are in the process of becoming. Africa is God in diapers. Our own trials and tribulations, whether inflicted by others or by us, will lead us to something beautiful. I would like to believe that. We are constantly living in a state of becoming. New faces and new pairs of eyes are slowly being forged in the dark. Or maybe it’s all bulls**t, the suffering will keep on going, we were meant to be eaten by others, the “Africa rising” myth is a lie, and there is nothing at the other end. But it’s very hard to embrace nothingness; I would like to believe in something. I would like to believe we are becoming.
Arts and political activism can be a vehicle to bring change. Art does not spring out of a vacuum; it’s a mirror of a society, inspiring ideas that can foster change. It can nurture fluidity of ideas and progressive thinking, influence sociological views. And it can also be self-indulgent; it can it can become a mirror that only reflects back to the artist, like Narcissus.
You grew up in a country with very little infrastructure for cinema, and you ultimately taught yourself how to be a filmmaker. What were your experiences of cinema growing up, and how did they inspire you to make movies?
Like everyone else who grew up in a hard place, my story is a cliche. I come from a violent place and cinema was a way to “escape.” They used to project 16mm films when I was growing up, mostly American films. I watched them religiously; it became a trend to watch and retell films with my peers. Around that time I started to draw movie characters and mixed them with my own creations. At that time there was no one doing anything with art or cinema, or at least, I had no access to it. The idea of actually making something like this was far-fetched to me.
I watched “Platoon” and the scene where Willem Dafoe is dying with his hands raised skywards moved me profoundly. I became curious about making films. I built my own make-shift projector so that I could project my drawings on long reams of paper. Later on I started studying films on my own, different movements of cinema.
A title card at the beginning of the film refers to “barefooted cinema.” Can you tell us more about that concept, and about the Mokoari Collective?
Mokoari Collective is a group of filmmakers who have come together to create and to help each other. Barefooted cinema is a movement. Just like any other early movements of cinema. It’s inspired by Third Cinema in Africa. It has its own rules and regulations, from an idea itself, to how something should be shot.
You said in an interview after the film’s premiere at the Berlinale that your previous work “upheld a god-like image of [your] country and of the African continent in general,” whereas in “Mother,” you “revolted.” Do you think that revolt was necessary for you as a filmmaker? Where do you see your work going from here (if this is, indeed, your last film about Africa)?
Political correctness can be an impediment of an artist; at the same time it can liberate you from falling into cliches and help you find more creative alternatives. I believe in the “Africa rising” wave; whether it’s a myth doesn’t matter, at least it inspires something real. But there must also be “modern iconoclast.” You have those that forge wells and you have those that soil them. It was necessary to play the latter. I don’t see them as opposites, they are all intertwined. They are cut from the same place of love. I would like to think of it as Luther and Malcom X. We live in the era where monolithic thinking is encouraged and accepted. We fossilize radical, different views. After finishing “Mother,” I realized that I have just scratched the surface. It will take me hundreds of films to fully speak on this topic.