2020 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Nestled within the borders of South Africa is the Kingdom of Lesotho. Its two million inhabitants are mostly farmers, though some go off to work in the diamond mines. Now this small, landlocked nation has produced the new film, “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection,” which premiered this week in Park City.
A widow mourns the death of her son. The last of her family, he died while away working in the mines. In despair, she longs for death and prepares for it. But pray as she might, death eludes her. While she waits, she learns her village will soon be relocated. The King of Lesotho has ordered the construction of a dam that will flood their land. All inhabitants will be moved to the capital to start a new life. But the widow, who longs to join her family in the local cemetery, fights against the powers that be, determined to stop imminent domain that will ruin her last request.
Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese directs this film, experimenting with images and sound in ways that are as grating as they are intriguing. The symphony of sounds invades the senses uncomfortably. Music squeals and squelches through scenes where other directors might have opted for a quieter soundscape. The close aspect ratio confines the view, too. Instead of allowing the viewer to gaze upon this open farm land and its rolling hills, the images are tight and constricted. It is a way to share in the widow’s grief. She lives in this open place, and is trapped by it.
Without having much — or any — knowledge about Lesotho, this is a film that is difficult to understand and certainly difficult to enjoy. But film isn’t necessarily about enjoyment or pleasure. It is about the experience. Learning something new or feeling something different. It is a window into different worlds and cultures and emotions.
With this film in particular, Mosese makes choices that seem strange, and he doesn’t always make efforts to contextualize them. We aren’t gifted with an in-depth lesson on Lesotho’s history or religious culture. He gives just enough to follow the widow’s story. But doesn’t spend time explaining the details. That is up to the viewer to interpret or study elsewhere.
“The Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection” is not one the average viewer will likely flock to. But as American and European audiences open themselves up to new international voices, this is one they should look for. It’s the type of film that deserves to be seen for its introduction to a new culture, a new way of life. A new film language. It is not easy to watch, but the experience is worthwhile.