Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese wants a smoke.
We meet at Park City’s Main Street, the extremely busy heart of the Sundance film festival where Mosese is screening his latest film, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. There is a second screening of the film later in the evening but Mosese, a veteran of international film festivals from Venice to Rotterdam, has developed a mini routine that helps keep the nerves at bay. It includes plenty of smoke breaks.
Born in Lesotho, an enclaved territory in the southern part of Africa, Mosese, 40, studied Human Resources in a South African University where he began to experiment with filmmaking. Post college, he returned to Lesotho where he made a couple of “bad films” which he is quick to admit were an important learning curve. His short film, Loss of Innocence, was presented at the Berlinale as part of the 2012 Talent Campus.
Across several films, in a career that has spanned over a decade now, Mosese has grappled with the effects of organised religion, especially as they have come to influence post-colonial African societies. For Those Whose God is Dead (2013) tracks three separate stories of lives disillusioned by their belief in a higher being. In Behemoth: Or the Game of God (2016), an itinerant preacher drags a coffin through the streets, hoping to attract more followers with his brand of manic Pentecostal warfare. He does quite the opposite. And in last year’s video essay, Mother I am Suffocating. This is my Last Film About You, the arresting opening image was the reflection of a woman, carrying a giant wooden cross and making her own penance while bystanders look on. This imagery was, for Mosese, a primer for once again interrogating the legacy of Christianity and colonialism in his home country.
His latest, This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, is Mosese’s most accessible film in a long time. Boasting a disciplined narrative, committed performances plus powerful meditations on life, death and the power of the human spirit, the film crackles with all the energy and righteousness of an auteur looking to return some agency back to the people through the power of storytelling.
“What is interesting about how Jeremiah works is intention”, Cait Pansegrouw, producer of This is Not a Burial… as well as other acclaimed South African titles like Inxeba (2017) and Necktie Youth (2015) tells me as she joins us in the extreme Park City weather.
The two met in 2017 when Mosese was selected to develop his project via a spot in the Realness African Screenwriters Residency program, which Pansegrouw’s Urucu Media administers. “His work is very intuitive, very reactionary. He doesn’t necessarily go into his work with any answers at all. It is more like a montage of very striking, very visceral images that are all swimming around in his head. We really managed to distil all those ideas and the most important ones ended up in the film”, she reveals about his process.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Ressurection’s protagonist is Mantoa, (a fiery Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80 year-old widow resident in Nasaretha, a landlocked village in the Lesotho highlands, who receives word that her only son has lost his life in a mining accident. With nothing else to live for, Mantoa directs her energies into making proper arrangements for her own burial. She soon runs into a challenge.
The city council is about to flood the village prior to the construction of a dam. Residents have been promised resettlement assistance in a nearby city. Mantoa considers this her final battle and is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure she rests with her ancestors. It is after all her only connection to the earth.
Because This is Not a Burial… is still a Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese film after all, it is heavily dependent on visual flair and Mosese continues to be influenced by ancient oral storytelling traditions. Every frame is exquisitely rendered, carefully delineating the beauty of Lesotho’s wide open spaces and how this beauty is untethered to the grinding poverty that the villagers have to contend with.
The plot is preceded by a dreamy section in which a male raconteur playing the lesiba narrates loose tales of war and strife, elevating the events that follow into the realm of legend. And why not? For what is more remarkable than an active citizen, convinced of the righteousness of their cause and burning with intensity of their fury. Tales have long been told of such persons. Songs have been written. And when in the final frames of This is Not a Burial…, Mantoa performs a desperate yet utterly compelling act of physical resistance, it is quite clear she has radicalised a new generation to keep on resisting.
But for how much longer?
I find the title of your film, This is Not A Burial, It’s a Resurrection, so beautiful and packed with meaning. Just like the title of your previous film, Mother, I Am Suffocating. This is My Last Film About You. How do you arrive at these lengthy, loaded poetic titles?
I love text. I really love literature. Most times when I am creating, the idea first comes from the text, so sometimes I can develop a film purely from the words that come to me. With the essay film, Mother, I Am Suffocating, there were some words that had resonated with me for some time and I started to play with them. Like when you imagine how a mother is not Jesus but she’s always being crucified. So the image of the woman who is being crucified in the film comes from those texts that I had strung together in my head and it continued to develop from there. I am a big believer in words and, of course, I believe in image above all, and as a filmmaker, I feel that image takes precedence.
So you have these words and then the story builds from around it, the images too.
Yes, but there is no formula to it really. Sometimes it is more like I have this mosaic of visuals in my head and I need to find the right text to put them all together. Sometimes the text comes first. It depends.
Mother, I Am Suffocating… was supposed to be your last film about Africa wasn’t it?
I thought so too, honestly.
Then you go back to Lesotho and make a film about the land.
I felt like when I did Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You, I sort of opened a can of worms and I could not close it. The film that I made next, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, has to do with identity, displacement, holding on to something that is not there, and it has pretty much similar themes. I honestly thought I would make a different film but now I see why I could not. I am going through the same thing coming from Lesotho and living in Europe. It is just a constant race of finding my way in the world. In a way, not having a place I belong to and living in the margins gives me the agency right now to create work that has to do with displacement. It is something that is very important to me. I cannot think of anything else because I am going through it as we speak, and I can only create from a place of reaction.
How much of this reaction in This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection can be traced to you personally?
Everything. I am pretty much in every scene. It is either my grandmother’s story or my personal conflict, especially with the religious themes. I have dealt with my conflict about religion in my previous work but for some reason I cannot let it go. Also there is my conflict about time. I have read so much about the way of the world, how the world functions, the stuff that repeats itself in cycles or in different generations, stuff like gentrification for instance. It is like a wheel that keeps revolving. At some point you almost lose hope in a way because no matter what interventions you introduce, gentrification is meant to happen. It is nice when there is some resistance but resistance is part of the whole process as well and this frustration, this conflict, is something that will happen whether there is a resistance to it or not. I find this very fascinating. The sense that the wheel of time keeps going, it doesn’t matter. People will be kicked out of their village, the dam will be built and sooner or later that new will become old. And that old someday will become new again. This life cycle is my conflict in life. I love progress. I am in Sundance because progress has made everything easier but with time, as with everything else, there are consequences. And also the idea of death itself. When you look at this old video of this Colombian girl, Omayra Sánchez Garzón, who was trapped in the lava when the wall of her home collapsed because of a volcanic eruption. She was sitting there for days before she eventually died. But before that she cried and prayed and did everything and they couldn’t rescue her. I feel like that is an explicit exhibition of nature in its purest form. So beautiful yet so incredibly violent. And this conflict is one that I have been tormented with for a very long time
What do you do with this conflict and how do you process it so you aren’t consumed by it?
I don’t know how to move forward but I know that at that very moment I need to talk about how I feel. When I was young I experienced eviction and we had to move to a very bad neighbourhood and it was one of the things that connected me with Cait because Cait also comes from that place where you have to move from this beautiful home to somewhere that isn’t quite as comfortable. You can only live with that shit. You can’t really do anything about it.
How do you approach making a film that is more accessible to a general audience than your previous work. Was it a conscious decision or did the story just arrange itself?
What is funny is I didn’t even think about it. For me it is about a reaction. If I didn’t react, I wouldn’t make films because there would be no interest. I need to react violently to what is happening around me so it just comes naturally. And as for structures, I don’t hold on to language, everything just comes naturally depending on what I am talking about at that time, even when I have to critique my country. It is very hard to critique my country. How do you even critique African countries knowing the legacy of colonialism and imperialism that precedes them. You know why there is a problem, you know where it comes from so, I felt like I could only do it metaphorically. That is what was feasible for me at the time. Also I must say, Cait was a strong partner in this process because I wanted to cross over as well, I wanted to not just make film for artists. Mother, I Am Suffocating… is an intellectual abstraction but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an abstract filmmaker. I wanted to explore other kinds of processes, grow as an artiste. I wanted a different way of accessing the audience and when I would express doubts in the editing room, Cait would reassure me and tell me to just stay true to myself.
Interesting, because I would imagine her role is to encourage you to open it up some more.
No, she was like fuck it up! Fuck it up some more.
I am wondering what it must look or feel like in your head space. Do you have all these images clashing together and jostling for attention with words. Is it some kind of battlefield up there?
A lot of ideas man. I was lucky enough to be part of Realness Residency in Johannesburg. That experience helped me a lot with narrowing the ideas and quieting the noise a bit. But when they start, all the ideas that I am wrestling with, I feel like a hundred years aren’t enough to express and explore and interrogate. So many ideas, man.
How did this one come to you?
It was very organic for me to think of my country Lesotho knowing that one of the villages being resettled is where my grandmother is from. The people are fighting but not for longer, it is on the verge of displacement and eventually they are going to lose the place. So it was a very immediate need to tell the story of these people and their connection to the land not just in terms of farming or earning their livelihood but of a spiritual connection to the land itself. So it was very important to show this connection. You know how you are born and you have your umbilical cord buried to the same land where all the dead people are buried. Imagine all these stories. And then you want to move them, it’s a horror the psychological effect that comes from this.
How did you find the actors for the film, I recognised some faces there?
We had maybe three or four people who were professional actors. The lead, Mary Twala Mhlongo, had to be a pro because we didn’t have much time to make the film, plus shooting in the Lesotho mountains, where there are no facilities, was hard enough.
What is your own relationship with the land? You live in Berlin now.
I left Lesotho eight years ago but I am still back and forth. Lesotho is my mother. It is everything to me. That is why I do films there because I am connected to the place, I am the place. I am Lesotho. In as much as there is so much stress going on right now but it is who I am. Politically it is a Shakespearean tragedy over there. It is run by shepherds. A real Game of Thrones situation is going on there. And you know how it is, like may other countries on the continent, art isn’t considered to be important. I feel like in a way it helps because people tend to develop or find their voices when there is a lack or when there is nothing. I feel like it is sort of an advantage for us. We are telling stories because we need to tell stories not necessarily because we can get funding. We do it because there is a need.
How do you think that this push and pull of development can be balanced such that we know that we need to develop but we retain the very core that makes us Africans?
I don’t know, it is very complex considering Africa has different languages, cultures, cinemas etc. But as far as filmmakers are concerned, I think that it is high time we get together in the form of collectives where we share some objectives so that we can help each other develop. I don’t have an answer for this but the collective is what I believe in over individualism. Contemporary artists must come together to tell stories and reclaim what is ours not just from the European gaze but from our own gaze. That gaze is important.
At what point did you make the decision to leave Lesotho?
I feel like I never left. I love Berlin where I live now because of the community that it provides for artists. I love the bubble that I live in in Berlin. I feel safe in Berlin. But I also love my country and that rugged energy of young people just creating things regardless of the obstacles in their way. I love both countries so for me it is like I never left.
And you have criticised Berlin in your work as well
Of course, I have. Berlin isn’t immune.
You taught yourself filmmaking and you have a distinct style that is quite hard to place. I am curious about who your influences are.
I am not influenced by directors, I am influenced by films. My primary influence is Käthe Kollwitz, a German expressionist painter. And also Anna Akhmatova, who was a brilliant poet active during the Soviet era.
How does a guy from Lesotho find these people?
I mean now it is easy, the internet. I used to write poetry and I have always liked paintings and art. I started drawing before I made a film. But as for films like you asked, perhaps the one that has influenced me more than anything else is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is a film I go back to every time.
Curious you mention these influences as they also point to the strong feminist themes in your films. Do you agree?
That is part of it. The other part is that my mother played every role that one can imagine in my life. I never had a father figure, don’t know anything about my father even though I have met him a couple of times. Every sense of immediacy in my life was provided by my mother. Also it is a conscious decision in a way because I come from a place that is very clearly patriarchal so it is very important to change the narrative of how we grew up as men and how we raise our boys to be men. We were told not to be emotional, don’t cry and stuff like that. We need to change the fucking narrative. These aren’t the medieval times man it is so overdue.
But how has this influence bled directly into your work?
For me when I write women characters, it is always a problem because I am a man and I don’t know anything. I tend to always stereotype them so what I do instead is I write women as men and just change their names much later.
There’s an idea
Right? That way I avoid clichés and the obvious pitfalls.
What is the relationship with your mother like these days?
My mother is God to me. She is back in Lesotho. But you know as an artist even if your mother is God, you need to confront those things that make her so and break it down. You have to interrogate these ideas of infallibility and see her like a regular human being. But it is a bit sad in a way because your mother is everything to you. Of course, she is a good mother and an amazing human being but as you grow older, you start to see her as a human being with some of her flaws becoming more and more visible.