This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, is an atmospheric drama set in Lesotho, and the country’s first official submission to the Academy Awards. It examines the profound pain and cultural consequences caused by that country’s government’s decision to move communities from areas that were going to be flooded after the construction of huge dams built as part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. That the story is shaped by history both real and recent (Katse Dam was completed in 1996) gives this magnificently shot and acted piece extra poignancy.
Veteran iconic actor, Jerry Mofokeng (Tsotsi, Lord of War, Machine Gun Preacher) plays a nameless character – an old man who plays the lesiba (Lesotho’s national instrument) and provides, through his institutional knowledge and gravelly gravitas, context for the unfolding story. Playing a character without a name is different – is it an opportunity, perhaps, to be more of a force or a presence, rather than a person?
“I knew that Mantoa (the film’s protagonist, played by the late Mary Twala), was my reference,” says Jerry. But when I saw the role of the lesiba player, I thought: he is telling the story – or that’s one way of viewing the film. Something drives him to tell the story, and the lesiba helps him focus. You might ask if the story interrupts the lesiba or the other way around.”
The instrument adds music and heritage to the project’s other cultural signifiers. “The lesiba is a simple instrument,” explains Jerry. “You attach a feather to a horsehide string and play it with your mouth. There are no words – all the expression is in the groaning and glottal sounds of the player. It’s a way of connecting with the ancestors, and you can’t go for lessons. Son teaches son,” explains Jerry.
Fables help people to remember stories, and the surreal aspects of This Is Not A Burial… plus its authenticity and the power of its imagery, brilliantly captured by director of photography Pierre de Villiers, give the story that mythical feel.
“There are similar references for anyone knowing the Lesotho story,” says Jerry. “When they were building the Katse and Mohale dams, they had to move people from their places of legacy. And when you move a grave, what happens to the spirit that resides in that space? With my wife’s family, when her mom passed away, they decided to exhume her dad so they could bury him with her in the same place. I had to stand far away. It was strange for me to see just the skull – all that was left – of the strong man that he was.
Also, as a boy, at the Maseru border post, I watched young men going to the mines in South Africa, a ritual of that time. And I remember seeing a young man coming back through the border wrapped in a blanket – coming home to die of AIDS. That’s not necessarily connected to the film, but it made me think about how important it was for those men to come home to die. In the film, Mantoa’s decision to stay and the way she inspires the other women to make a powerful gesture underlines the fable style of the story,” says Jerry.
This Is Not A Burial… has a team closely connected with Lesotho and its culture, but which has created something appealing to all audiences [multiple festival awards and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing].
“I am a subscriber to the auteur view,” says Jerry. “It helps, though, when the director has a clear, high-definition picture in his mind to begin with. Jeremiah didn’t have the kind of budget he needed, but that made him more creative. He decided he wanted to bring in sheep – which are untrainable – to make a scene better. And we filmed in difficult terrain, some of it only reachable by horseback. Sometimes we had crew members carrying Mary on their backs as they crossed a river!”
This is a story centred on death. Yet, as its title suggests, there is inspiration. Jerry explains, “There are two things that are a problem for us as finite beings,” muses Jerry. “One – death always comes too early. And two – death is permanent. It stops time. With the frustration and fear that comes with death, if you are able to put your finger on the rawness and pain and keep me there, not actually thinking about death, then you have a powerful story.”
Watch the trailer below.