Setting a tone of unearthly beauty from the very start, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Visionary Filmmaking winner This is Not a Burial, It’s as Resurrection is striking. The film is an exploration of grief and acceptance, both personal and of loved ones. It’s a poem dedicated to the power of community to both bring us together and isolate us. Warm, richly lit, and engagingly sound designed, the film is a piece of venerable craft firing on all cylinders.
An 80-year old widow, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), waits to hear word of the fate of her son after a mining accident. Her community in rural Lesotho is under the threat of resettlement, and he is her only surviving relative. Messengers bring news that her son has died in the accident, as she waits outside her hut to embrace him like a soldier returning home from war. Grief takes hold of her, and every night she lays beneath the blue drapes of her bed, listening to the obituaries play over the radio. Perhaps it is a sort of white noise to her after a while, or maybe a final grip onto reality.
Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the rich, textured shots pull us deeper into the world. The film uses color wonderfully to make its world luscious, with natural symmetry; making frames seem like oil paintings without them looking staged. The zoom lenses are used without distraction, instead applying an element of tactility, unlike the mockumentary stylings they often signal. Every part of the frame is taken into account, with the foreground and background interplaying in a way that makes the stills look like fine-art photography.
The film uses its sound extraordinarily, painting tone almost as brilliantly as it does with it’s camera. Just as jarring as the initial imagery we see, the first sound we hear is that of a lesiba player. The South african bowed instrument cuts clear through the rest of the world, with a deep, throaty hum that sounds like a bird singing its last song. This final song is the film itself, a sort of interlude to the sendoff of grief that is to come. The lesiba player verbalizes much of the film, with silence becoming a tonal shift into deeper grief. The musician acts as our surrogate, establishing a lyrical flow that lulls us into comfort while Mantoa is still able to somewhat cope.
“For this is not a death march, or a burial” we hear. Even when there is pain onscreen, it is not suffering, but a healing release. Her son may be dead, but it is inevitable for our abandoned, eternal mother. She wishes to be buried with the rest of her family in the mountains, where her ancestors had settled, but is informed by a village chief that it was never their land to begin with. She wishes to be laid to rest with the rest of her family, yet it becomes almost meaningless once she learns the truth of where they sleep.
It is not the dying that she worries for, but the ritual afterwards. To a western audience like that of Sundance, it is a challenge to our cultural fear of death. Mantoa may grieve for her son, and she may grieve for the burial tradition, but she hardly fears her own death. We may take the film’s premise as gloomy, or downright bleak, due to our own North American-based perceptions, but it is an essential act of acceptance and catharsis within the grief. It’s not a burial that she will experience at the end, but a reunion, or as the film puts it, “a resurrection”.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film is currently seeking International Distribution.