Terra Infirma

March 31, 2021

“TODAY WE ARE KNOCKING at the door of the modern world,” says the politician to the villagers of Nazaretha, bloviating into a megaphone’s detachable mic. “Your voice has been heard,” he reassures them, as if they’d asked for this, as if he, this bloated hype-man, their elected official, were doing them a favor. But representation is tricky when you stand out from the masses, clad in a sports coat, button-down shirt, and shiny gold belt buckle. “I assure you it will be worth it.” His constituents gaze at him silently. Meanwhile, throughout this bombast, the camera tracks a petite elderly woman, dressed head to toe in black, descending a hill. Eventually, she wends her compact frame through the crowd to its front, where she shouts, “What about our graves?”

Shot in widescreen on location in Lesotho, one of the world’s three independent states totally surrounded by a single country (South Africa), This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection stars the late Mary Twala as Mantoa, the octogenarian who utters these words in defiance of a proposed resettlement order by the government to make way for a dam and reservoir. Like so many politicians, the one here (Silas Monyatsi) has come to convince this closely-knit community that development and expansion are in their best interest. “UP with development!” But Mantoa, enshrouded in mourning, has the dead on her mind.

To modernize would be to desecrate Nazaretha’s dead; the dam’s construction would entail flooding the village and leaving their graves underwater. Among the dead: Mantoa’s only son, whose accidental death in a South African mine she receives word of at the beginning of the film; many of her ancestors, laid in the ground beneath her feet; and casualties from a long-ago plague who were put to rest in the Plains of Weeping—the name ascribed to this swath of land prior to the arrival of missionaries. Mantoa refuses to relocate without them.

It’s not just a matter of exhuming those who have perished. In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s debut feature, Mantoa conceives a far more integral and symbiotic relationship between places and people. Imagine part of your body in the ground—an appendage, an organ. Picture, too, a vast underground commonwealth of human matter. The earth houses Mantoa’s mother’s placentas as well as generations’ worth of umbilical cords—hers, her children’s, her parents’ and theirs. Those fallen in war also rest here. Mantoa wins over the community by detailing all of this, even convincing their leader, Chief Khotso (Tseko Monaheng). Soil is sacred, more than just stuff to toss atop a stiff corpse. Mantoa describes something like an intergenerational, microorganic kinship between expired Homo sapiens and the planet. Inanimate, yes; lifeless, no. 

Thinking about Mosese’s new film, I kept returning to a provocation from urban anthropologist Damien M. Sojoyner’s 2017 essay “Dissonance in Time,” published in Futures of Black Radicalism: “The trick and abject horror of time is its covert use in the reinforcement of difference (i.e. race, gender, sexuality).” Progress prioritizes its own calendar in perpetuity. Capitalism has no time for death, unless it’s ensuring poor populations disappear efficiently and without too much noise. How can we care for the dead if we don’t even care for the living?

As in the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Angela Schanelec, or Pedro Costa, This Is Not a Burial asserts the importance of assembling temporal orders that don’t align with the one prescribed by transnational markets. This is established from the get-go, when, after a stuttering flash of jittery, inexplicable images—a spear is aimed at a horse struggling to break from its reins—we find ourselves inside a dark café filled with the low croon of a lesiba. Here, the camera slowly pans to reveal a few scattered individuals moving methodically in time, eventually settling on the man playing this instrument (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha), the film’s occasional narrator, whose laconic musings announce this world as not quite ours. The where of this opening sequence is unclear, the when even more so. The somnambulism of the scene sets the tempo for the film’s hypnotic flow (with its Tarkovskian vistas and pacing), as well as for Mantoa’s own oppositional slowness.

Speaking to Mantoa at one point as she cares for an ailing elder, the village priest (Makhaola Ndebele) recounts the history of the village church bell, which was forged by French missionaries: “Our people had to surrender their spears to the blacksmiths so that they could melt the iron and beat it into the bell.” Swabbing her supine patient, Mantoa makes no reply. Off camera, the priest, his face reflected in a small mirror behind Mantoa, continues. “Interesting thing is that they didn’t just surrender their spears but their gods too. Every single toll of that bell made a way for the new: a new God, a new way of life.” It is the tolling of this bell that Mantoa resists, and that Mosese’s film so unsentimentally seeks to overcome.

— Anthony Hawley

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection begins streaming on April 2.