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TIFF 2021: Neptune Frost, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), Lingui The Sacred Bonds

The international slate of films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival included a nice helping of titles from Africa, three of which debuted over the course of the festival’s first three days. These included the Afrofuturist-musical “Neptune Frost” from Rwanda, the horror film “Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)” from South Africa, and mother-daughter drama “Lingui, The Sacred Bonds” from Chad. Each helmed by filmmakers with distinct cinematic voices combining the lingering effects of a colonialist past with strong visions for their community’s present and future; they could not be more different in genre and approach.  

Written and directed by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, early in “Neptune Frost” we’re told that stories have many interpretations, just like dreams. This story follows the titular Neptune, an intersex hacker played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo, who flees toward their mother’s homeland. There they encounter a compound of hackers who seek to escape the ravages of genocide and entrapment by the coltan mines through the use of technology.  

As the hackers evade the military and gain notoriety on the internet, they debate amongst themselves what is best for their future as both a collective and for their individual lives. Neptune also finds themselves drawn to Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), a coltan miner mourning the death of his brother. 

Playful, but dense, “Neptune Frost” is filled with complex ideas about gender, colonialism, freedom, technology, existence, and meaning that leaves viewers with more questions than answers. I particularly enjoyed the play on words between mine and mine, as Williams and Uzeyman investigate the way in which Rwanda's resources have been mined, its people often forced to do the mining, while they also are unsure what they have that they can really call "mine."

Utilizing a color palette of ultraviolet and neon blues and greens, infused with music and dance, the filmmakers have crafted a world that feels both part of the greater tradition of Afrofuturism, while also feeling uniquely its own.

Similar in its exploration of post-colonialist themes, and in particular apartheid, comes the horror film “Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)” from South African director Jenna Cato Bass. The film has a whopping 12 credited screenwriters and unfortunately it shows through its muddled message and uneven tone. In a taped intro for the film director and co-writer shared her intent to use the horror genre to explore colonialism’s lingering hold on South Africa. Despite the film’s almost entirely Black cast, it’s hard to forget there is a white woman at the helm, attempting to unpack weighty racial themes that do not feel hers to explore.

We’re introduced to Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) who is forced to reconnect with her mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) after the death of the grandmother who raised her forces her from her home. With her daughter in tow, Tsidi comes to live in the suburban home where Mavis has lived and worked for decades. As the film progresses we learn that Mavis’ loyalty to Diane, her Madam, may be caused by even more sinister force than simple colonialism.  

While she is great at building tension from menacing static shots of the home’s interior, Bass’ continual panning across Diane’s fine china and her collection of traditional African art, has the opposite effect of what was likely intended. Tsidi feels othered in the home, but in attempting to broadcast to viewers, Bass’ gaze instead begins to other her cast. 

Equally bungled is the way Bass cuts her cast up by showing only their hands or bodies sans head in frame as they complete cleaning tasks. The intention it seems is to show how they are seen by the white people they serve, but the effect mostly relegates her characters to symbolism, stripping them of any form of agency. Bass also manages to lean heavily into exoticizing tropes with her score; her use of traditional chants to heighten certain “spooky” scenes left a terrible taste in my mouth. Ultimately, the film is muddled by too many half-baked ideas, poor execution, and distasteful directorial choices. 

Making its North American debut after playing Cannes this summer, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s latest film “Lingui, The Sacred Bonds” is the best of the bunch. A perennial festival favorite, Haroun’s deeply humanist films generally explore facets of manhood in his home country of Chad. Taking a chance outside his comfort zone, with “Lingui, The Sacred Bonds” Haroun focuses on the strength and resilience of women in the face of a dangerously patriarchal society. 

Living on the outskirts of N’Djamena, we meet Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a single mother who was cut off by her family for having a child out of wedlock. When her daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), now 15, is expelled from school after also becoming pregnant the two face the event together. Abandoned by the father, Maria wants an abortion—illegal in Chad and forbidden by their religion—so that she can return to school and get her future back on track. Unlike her family, Amina does not turn her back on her daughter, but rather does everything she can to secure the health services she requires. 

Souleymane's performance is tender and raw, seething under the surface with the anger she carried all these years for the community that exiled her, but also buoyed by the deep love she feels for her daughter. Through Amina and Maria’s journey to reproductive freedom, Haroun both shines a light on the strict patriarchal laws of the country, but also the powerful connections women form to help each other survive within them. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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