We all process loss and deal with grief in our way. There is no right or wrong way. Lesotho’s first ever Oscar submission, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a stunning story of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of darkness and change. Directed and written by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, the film adapts the story of Mosese’s own grandmother and the many inhabitants of rural parts of Lesotho who are being forced to leave their homes in the name of modernization. But at what cost?
In a small, landlocked yet breathtakingly beautiful village in Lesotho, 80-year-old widow Mantoa (Mary Twala) awaits the return of her son, and only surviving family member, from the coal mines of South Africa. But she is devastated when she receives news that he has died in a mining accident and she is now all alone. As she struggles to find meaning in her solitary existence, she also must contend with the fact that her village is being forcibly resettled due to the construction of a new dam reservoir that will flood the land and desecrate the cemetery. This is all too much for Mantoa to bear as she is consumed with grief and a yearning to be reunited with her family. To her fellow villagers, she is perceived to be losing her grip on reality. But she is given a newfound sense of purpose and resolve as she fights and ignites a spirit of defiance within her community, ultimately turning her into the stuff of legends.
Drawing inspiration from personal experience, Mosese weaves a tale of epic proportions that makes viewers question our march toward modernity. What are we giving up in the process? How do we reconcile what and who has come before with what lies ahead? Using the African tradition of storytelling, Mosese tells a story that is all at once haunting and inspiring. Mantoa faces so much tragedy — so much so that one would question how much they could bear before they start to question the benevolence of their god and long for the death themselves. But our tragic “hero” realizes that this life is so much bigger than just her as she fights for those who have already died and the sacredness of the hollowed ground in which they now reside. She becomes the voice for the voiceless — even though much of Twala’s performance is silent, she leads through action, conviction and resolve.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is equal parts artistic masterpiece, character study and social commentary. The people of the village don’t own the land that they live on so they have no legal claims to it, although they are solidly rooted in this land, both figuratively and literally. They fight to keep the land so that they can have something to pass down to future generations while holding on to the legacy of those who have gone on before them. It shows the impact and questions that arise when dealing with forced resettlement and issues like eminent domain here in the U.S. But while Mantoa is dealing with grief and what should be a burial for her son and ultimately herself, she resurrects the spirit of the ancestors and the villagers in there newfound mission.
The film is beautiful in its expansive wide shots of the beauty and splendor of the countryside. It starts frenzied like a psychological thriller. There is blurred tribalism with scary movie orchestral music. And there are sequences that give off The Shining vibes with the music playing over scenes of people talking in silence as the camera slowly zooms in. From there, it unfolds into a beautiful tapestry of resilience. The colors are rich and vibrant, accentuating the story. There are certain scenes that could stand alone, visually, as works of art. And Twala gives a mostly silent, but haunting, moving and solid performance as she carries the film along with narrator Jerry Mofokeng.