Review: This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection heralds Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese as a major talent. In his second feature-length film he challenges perceived notions of beauty and politics in southern Africa (Lesotho specifically) and critiques monarchy and corrupt bureaucratic government. Paired with a haunting soundtrack, Mosese uses Academy ratio to frame the film to tell the story of Mantoa, an elderly woman trying to protect her village from future destruction while mourning the deaths of her daughter, son, and granddaughter.

Mantoa is played by the natural and terrific Mary Twala, who quietly leads the villagers’ cause against the national government’s plan to build a dam nearby. The construction will lead to the hills and valleys of the village and neighboring areas being submerged underwater, which additionally will cause the flooding of the cemetery where Mantoa’s family and ancestors are buried. For the entire village the place is sacred. For example, Mantoa frequently tells the stories of the past and how the village came to be and has great reverence for their cultural history. The relocation of the bodies in the graveyard and the leaving of the land are not only culturally taboo, but emotional suicide for the local inhabitants.

The use of color and framing in the film highlights Mosese’s sensitivity and respect for the culture of the village, and combined with the Academy ratio creates one of the most beautiful films of last year. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection doesn’t apply gritty realism, but provides a tremendously vibrant palette to show the majestic beauty of the landscapes instead of focusing on squalor. The camerawork not only gives deep respect and love to the characters but it awakens the land and portrays it as a living organism that is being endangered by development.

As the title suggests, resurrection is a major theme in the film. While Mantoa has lost many of her close kin, she remains resilient for respect toward their memory and burial place and for the traditions of the past. With the prospect of the dam being built, the stories of the deceased and traditions of the village are revived to compete against modernity. In a physical sense, the bodies that will be transported to new graveyards will be resurrected and the lives of the villagers uprooted to new areas. The film can also be seen as a critique on the lack of basic property rights. In Lesotho, at least per this film, the king has the right to take property back, as families only rent out the land every few years. A more permanent system that protected the rights of villagers and their land could better assist them in fighting against the creation of a dam, though modernity continues.

The first half of the film is an extreme success. Mary Twala’s performance and the grief she portrays are enormous, though the last third of the film slightly struggles in coming to a cohesive ending. The narrative isn’t as focused and mostly runs its course. Perhaps a bit could be cut to tighten it up, but overall for a new filmmaker, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a major achievement.