This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection : ‘Sundance’ Review – A haunting parable about loss of individual and collective identity
In Lemohang Jermiah Mosese’s sophomore feature film, This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection death is a character in itself. For the old widow who serves as a protagonist in this haunting drama from Lesotho, death has become a companion. It wouldn’t be wrong of me to say that they are frequent bedfellows. Such much so that Mantoa’s existence is merely an excuse away from ending itself.
We see her lying down waiting for her death in her wedding dress. She doesn’t have anything to live for. After the demise of her only son who was supposed to come back to her after working in a South African mine, her life has succumbed to despair. Her days go on contemplating on the dark-blue walls of her little hut. The hut – which was made by her husband, is also a stark reminder of her loneliness.
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She decides to end her life by asking the native gravedigger to ensure a grave is dug for her exactly where her husband and son lie. However, the plans of burying herself are disrupted by the news that her village is undergoing a large-scale, collective displacement. The government has chosen the village as a part of their ‘Highland Water Project.’ To make things worse, the place where the graves of their ancestors lie will soon be flooded so that a dam could be made in its place.
Mantoa thus finds a new will to live. She procures a small scale uprising where a few people of the community come together to revolt against the government’s idea of progress. She doesn’t believe in taking up a city life when her deathbed calls for her every other day. The other people of the village also understand that moving away from their small life will only make them feel displaced.
This collective revolt serves as the only part of Mosese’s otherwise bleak film with some sense of hope. Even the tale that Mantoa tells a small child is about how death has become an important part of their cultural existence. In a way, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a leisurely paced meditation on the new and old. The framing and the experimental approach also make sure that the narrative conjured up as a haunting resilience of the human spirit.
Mosese directs the film as an experimental, poetic myth – placing the audience right into the world of the people living in a small village nestled in the mountains of Lesotho. Shooting the entire film in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, Mosese often exemplifies the pain and hopelessness in Mantoa’s eyes. Her weary, grieving face can put even the happiest people in deep unrest. However, most of the film is full of people who serve more as objects than characters. This both works and doesn’t work for the film. While it gives the film a sense of documenting life, it becomes frustrating for a person who is trying to understand the culture through Mosese’s lense.
The score of the film is especially unsettling. The sound design, set against the backdrop of a ghost-like existence makes every frame reek of horror. This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection is the first narrative feature made by a Mosotho director. Since it is such a personal story, there’s a sense of dread that the director manages to put forth in every frame. His displacement from his home at a very early age plays an important role in shaping this narrative as a haunting parable of identity loss.
The cinematography is breathtaking. Even though it would have been really difficult to shoot in the conditions that prevail in Mosotho, cinematographer Pierre de Villiers manages to get almost every frame right. There are long, static shots of Mantoa looking out of the window trying to understand the bewildering sense of existence she is suddenly forced into. In a completely grief-stricken first act, we see her taking out batteries from her radio and putting them in the sunlight. When she finally gets to turn it on, all she hears in the distance are obituaries of people who have died nearby. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a film where death looms over you like a shadow. However, it also manages to shape up the myth it tries to push forward by giving you the light to a rebirth that exchanges places with death in a wrestle for existence.