The titular matriarch in Jeremiah Lemohang Moses’ “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This is My Last Film About You.” is not really — or not only — a person. She is a concept, a country, an entire continent.
The roving black and white cinematography that underscores a clipped, poetic voiceover (courtesy of Sivan Ben Yishai) addresses the African continent hoping to make literal the spirit behind the term “motherland.” All the while, given that we’re placed in an unnamed African country (Lesotho to keen-eyed viewers), this documentary feature playfully retools the simple and simplistic way the region often gets collapsed in the global imagination. But as Lemohang Moses’ title makes clear, his film is a letter addressed in anger, in frustration. But also with love. Or, with tenderness, at least. The tone may at some points be despondent (“I know I wasn’t a perfect child; all I needed was you, Mother,” “Your womb became a tomb”) but there is an emotional heartbeat running throughout that’s utterly entrancing.
If Lemohang Moses’ title immediately sketches a vexed dynamic between interlocutor and their mother figure, an impressive amount of emotional baggage conjured with just two sentences, his epigraph similarly is weighted with thematic heft: “Out of these ruins and ashes, I’ll knit you a new face and a new pair of eyes. Everything from here will look beautiful.” There is a promise in this opening. But it is premised on looking back and backward. And a way of looking at the world (and the mother, perhaps) anew. Who is speaking here, though? And, in the title (helpfully labeled as “Lament of Jeremiah Lemohang Moses”) for that matter? Who is knitting these new eyes? Who do these new eyes belong to?
The images that follow — and the film, in turn — don’t quite answer these questions. For the unnamed narrator of the piece, who may or may not be a version of the filmmaker himself, is necessarily the voice of many, the voice of those who feel stifled in their home countries and have sought refuge elsewhere only to realize their relationship with the place they once called home may never be healed. If anything, it may have only been made even more complicated from this vantage point. To piece together the insistent, almost recursive, voiceover that ebbs in and out of frame, is to witness someone trying desperately to speak to a parent who has probably not been up to the task of raising a child. Of course, the imagery that accompanies this lyrical narration, is what helps elevate these musings into the realm of allegory. The abusive mother, who soon forsook all the books she’d enjoyed when she became obsessively religious, is quite obviously an avatar for the filmmaker’s native country.
Lemohang Moses’ camera has a curiosity that would be ethnographic were it not so devoid of any kind of othering of gaze. An image of a man hooked to a VR headset out on the street in front of an outdoor vendor’s stand — who’s clearly engaging in virtual sex in front of unsuspecting bystanders — never feels lascivious nor censuring. It just becomes another entry in the film’s ever-expanding mosaic of portraits that also lingers on a woman carrying a cross on her back, on a flock of sheep being herded, the hands of a woman who’s knitting furiously, her son’s face covered in unspooled thread, and even a young figure donning cheap costume wings who attracts others’ eyes wherever they strut. Every one of these shots is rife with figurative power. They call out to be read as capturing something larger than themselves; yet it is their specificity that makes them resonate.
Even as the rhythms of “Mother, I Am Suffocating” teeter on the leisurely, there is an exacting precision to the cuts that demand its viewers pay attention to its every frame. A shot of a protest crowd in the streets, for instance, cuts to a slow-motion shot of a herd of goats only for Lemohang Moses to then offer an image of a butcher carrying a carcass that gets dismembered by a raucous crowd eager to get a piece of the skinned animal. There is an elegance to even this most blunt example of the metaphorical imagery in the film. There’s a density to Lemohang Moses’ blend of a poem and an essay, of a letter and a lament. Yet its beauty draws you in with ease, slowly wrapping you in the aggrieved point of view its title had promised.