More Dangarembga: Mother's Day

One week after meeting Tsitsi Dangarembga at the PEN lunch, I snuck away and went to her film at the African Film Festival this afternoon. It was shown with “Keepers of Memory,” a documentary commemorating the Rwandan genocide of 1994. (You can find the program, with synopses of both films at the link above--scroll down.)

At lunch, Dangarembga called herself a storyteller more than a writer and this is her third film. (Nervous Conditions is her only novel, though she has written poetry and is at work on a second novel.) It is also her directorial debut (she wrote the story for the other two). She spoke of the ways in which the collaboration of films balances with the intense solitude of writing. She said that film can do things that writing can’t. When pressed, she told a devastating anecdote: filming a story about land reform in Zimbabwe, she sent a New Zealander friend (presumably white) to film a white farmer talking about his experiences. With camera rolling, he gestured to an elderly, stooped black woman: “See her? She’s really funny. Watch!” Then, to the woman, “Dance, Ma, dance!” Of course, the poor woman does. Dangarembga laughed bitterly at the gruesome display of a white man’s power and domination, performed happily for the camera, without shame. She spoke about how, writing something like this down, one—she—is likely to be accused of reverse racism; filming it takes away that possibility. We see the situation for what it is.

Having heard this, even having read the program notes saying that “you have never seen anything like” Dangarembga’s Mother’s Day/Kare Kare Zvako, I wasn’t prepared for the intense, emotionally dazzling short (twenty-five minute) film I saw today. You can stop reading here if you don’t want it spoiled, but frankly, I cannot do it justice and, worse than that, I fear that prints of Zimbabwean short films are not easy to come by even in these rich days.

The film, in Shona with English and French subtitles (one right above the other) is a beautiful, devastating fable about motherhood and hunger. It opens with a young mother listlessly feeding live termites to her baby. The father arrives, impatiently jostling the child. “The baby cries because it is hungry,” she tells him, and we know this is an old fight, a fight brought on by the parched earth around them. She tells him she has no milk because she, too is starving, and they part in anger. She gathers more termites and roasts them. We next see her portioning out small handfuls of the insects to each of her three older children and then offering to tell them a story about how the ancestors once survived an even greater drought.

What follows is the fable, but that’s deliberately unclear until the very end. What we see is the father returning home, demanding food, demanding the children’s food as his right. The mother snatches the food back from him, returning it to her children—a bold and untraditional move, an angry and desperate one. She tells him to be a man and bring food home. He leaves. Later, he comes, wakes her and tells her she won’t believe his good fortune, for truly he has found something beyond belief.

Night has fallen and, at the termite hill, a group of dancers in beautiful termite masks emerge and dance an incantatory dance. They reappear from time to time to mark some of the more fantastic moments in this fable. Now, the mother follows the father and we, like her, disbelieve. There is nothing but bleak dryness in the landscape, all shot very close. No vistas relieve our sight. The most impressive thing we see, besides the isolated rock formation in which the family has nestled their mud hut and outdoor hearth, is the six-foot tall termite hill where the family gets its food. This is not a landscape to sustain a rabbit or antelope or frog let alone a lion or a human being.

It is a trap. He tells her to look just over the rise and she falls to her death, impaled by the stakes he's placed in a hole. He takes her home to make her into a stew; the children looking on in numb, hungry horror. This cowardly, selfish man, afraid of death, is unequal to the tasks of gathering up his wife’s body and cooking it. Each time he must do something and cannot, he turns to the children. They sweetly sing something more or less like this:
Mother, mother, we are your children.
We love you and sing to you.
Please do our father’s bidding.
Help him do this thing.

The actress then rises and sings of love and cooperation, dancing sweetly, sexily, joyously with her husband, seeming to cook or skip home. Then, she collapses, dead. Again and again we are tormented with the vision of this beautiful mother—what she could have been with just a little food, just a little more help, what she wanted to be for her children. Each time she dies, the children’s skin is a little duller, their lips a bit drier, their frowns a bit deeper. But, once again, the father turns to them and says, “Children, do it again, bring your mother back.” When he butchers her, she sings a mournful song about how the blows of the axe hurt less than the knowledge of who wields it, we see each swing and then we cut to the actress on bloody stumps, buried to her chest, to her neck, finally, the head kicked aside. The gothic low-budget special effects work because the acting is so sweetly amazing.

When he eats her, his stomach swells and swells and we hear the mother’s sweet singing, mournfully, sacredly reminding her children that she should not be blamed for having loved a bad man, that she would never abandon them. He lies back, plagued with terrible pains. His stomach bursts and the mother emerges from his dust to embrace her shocked and delighted children.

The camera then closes in on the mother’s tear-stained face and we hear, “Mama, mama, tell us again how that story about the famine ends.” Credits roll. The end.