To Match the Heavens and the Earth: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese Interviewed by Nicholas Elliott

The Mosotho filmmaker on oral literature, forced resettlement, and stitching together the old and new.

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Still from Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, 2019.

Although he has been making films for over a decade, Berlin-based, Lesotho-bred artist and director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese was catapulted into the ranks of today’s most vital filmmakers in 2019 with This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. Otherworldly in its blurring of life and death, time and space, the hauntingly beautiful feature is also vibrantly attuned to the reality of a village in the highlands of Lesotho facing resettlement to make way for a dam. In this apparent Eden on the verge of disappearing, the elderly widow Mantoa rallies her fellow villagers to fight for the land where they lay their dead to rest, and Mosese stages an extraordinary confrontation between the forces of tradition and progress. I took the opportunity of the film’s virtual rollout in the United States, starting with a screening as the centerpiece of the New York African Film Festival, to speak to Mosese via Zoom.

—Nicholas Elliott

Nicholas Elliott Normally, when I see a film, I have a sense of what the filmmaker has been watching. One of the things I found so exciting about This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection was that I couldn’t place it that way. So, I wanted to start by asking you where you and this film come from.

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese I grew up with very strong oral literature. This is common in many African countries. But in my case, it was really deep in the sense that as a child I had real storytellers around me, especially my mother. This inspired the way I perceive story. The folklore element in the film is not something I do deliberately. It’s part of me; it’s ingrained in how I see the world. 

Recently, I wrote a scene about a man beating his horse, and then the horse starts to speak. Someone was telling me that I should explain what that means since it’s the opening sequence of the film. But that’s not how I think. For me, the explanation comes very late. And I think I am privileged to have this nature from the beginning. I never filtered myself to ask whether people understand or not. I assume that they understand.

It also has something to do with the fact that when I was a child, I couldn’t express myself; my words had a way of failing me. Or rather, my tongue. Sometimes I was passionate about something, but I couldn’t communicate it. That made me want to achieve a high level of communication, which is why I turned to cinema. But now that I’m into cinema, there’s this other level of communication that I want to reach. It’s almost like communicating telepathically. I really strive for what Djibril Diop Mambéty speaks about when he says, “to see with your ears and hear with your eyes.”

When I create, I try not to question my material. Of course, there’s a level of pain and critique; you’re looking at the pacing, at whether people have the attention span. When I was making the film Mother, I am Suffocating (2019), I would sleep so many times while watching it. People were bothered that they could fall asleep. They thought it was too long. For me, there was beauty about it. That I can sleep and wake up, and see it again, and continue. Because I believe that cinema is not just something you watch, and that’s it. There is cinema that reveals itself with time, and that is what has been happening with my work. With time, I start to understand it. I try to figure out what it means to me. 

An elderly African woman with a sad facial expression sitting in a black shawl with a woman kneeling and crying in her lap. She is sitting on a bed in a darkly lit bedroom with a crucifix hanging on the wall behind her.

Still from Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, 2019.

NE Christianity plays an ambiguous role in your film. Your protagonist Mantoa turns her back on the church, yet she fights to save holy ground. And throughout the film, Christianity provides achingly rich, poetic imagery.

LJMIn my country it’s very sad, because the cinemas have been turned into churches. At every corner there is a church. It has become almost like a business. But I also saw this in Brooklyn and Harlem. Where there is a brokenness, there is always this rise of religion. People want something to hold onto. This can be a way for people to have fellowship, because that’s the whole idea of religion, to share the same belief and to struggle and lift each other up, which is a beautiful part about it. It is our nature to cry out to something deeper or higher than ourselves, outside of ourselves.

That’s human nature. That’s always been my fascination. I feel like the idea of God, and also this darkness that I bring alongside in the same breath, is all inside us. I feel like we are little Mary Magdalenes carrying Jesus, that we carry God. At times, he or it or whatever it is carries us; it’s this force with the loud voice of rushing water that is so much stronger. But at times, we carry it. 

The idea of human nature and God is the same because I think as human beings we exhibit the same attributes as God. Maybe there’s no difference at all. And this is sort of my quest—to explore the idea of who we truly are. 

NE That makes me think of how much of the sky you frame, how big the sky is throughout the film.

LJMI wanted to have these dualities. We are walking contradictions as human beings. The dark and light are always intertwined. The day and the night, the heavens and below are the same in a way. I wanted to sew them together. I wanted to match the heavens and the earth—the dirt, where the bodies are buried, the umbilical cords, the placentas, the rotten bodies of the victims of war, people still newly dead.

I just finished a video installation for the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam that deals with the old and the new coming together. It’s almost like I’m stitching them together, always trying to show them in the same frame, at the same time. That was also my intent with Resurrection.

Five civil engineers in yellow worker suits and hats stand in a group mapping land in the middle ground. Behind them is an expance of fields and mountains. In the foreground, we see a woman in a black shawl from behind, watching them.

Still from Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, 2019.

NEWhat is your relationship to the village where you made the film, Nazareth?

LJM I found it by chance. I was looking for a place similar to my grandmother’s village, which is deep in the mountains. I wanted to re-create this rural village I used to visit a lot. It still exists, but logistically it didn’t make sense to shoot so far away from the city. My grandmother’s village is now on the verge of being resettled to make way for a dam. There are villages trying to resist, but eventually they will have to leave. They get promised everything, but in the end they get literally nothing. It’s the same tragedy that inspired Resurrection; or rather its backdrop was inspired by this real event. One of the biggest dams in Africa was built in Lesotho, and it was really bad because they just made this dam while rushing to get rid of the people, so the people who were resettled ended up in a bad area on the outskirts of the city, next to a Chinese factory. There’s literally a river running through the village called Blue River because of the toxic waste from this jeans factory.

NE I’d like to talk about the balance of men and women in your film. The men in the film all have positions: they are priests, village leaders, a narrator. Whereas with the exception of Mantoa, the women tend to appear as a group—a dynamic group. When Mantoa calls the villagers to revolt, everyone in the frame is a woman. Was there a conscious choice to differentiate between the genders?

LJM That’s a beautiful observation, but it was not conscious. All the characters in the script are people I’ve met before. That’s the structure of the village. But Mantoa represents my idea about the future. There are very few Mantoas in the world. They almost don’t exist.

It is true that in that group scene, the men are a bit out of frame, standing on the hill farther away. That was deliberate. The night before that scene I wrote a song about turning cutlery into spears. It was specifically for women, and this becoming a war cry. If we talk about cutlery, we associate it with women, especially in the village complex. Or rumors. It’s such a bizarre and cruel way of seeing women. There’s also a part in the song that whispers of the rumors of war. I wanted to have this transformation that happens overnight, almost like a reminder of who they truly are. It’s not necessarily who they have just become but who they have been all this time.

In my history, there were many women who fought, who were really the armies, and it was important for me to have a meditation about that. I wanted to have the spirits of my grandmother, my mother, the women around me. I think that’s why when I wrote Mantoa’s character, I wrote her as a man. I knew that a woman was going to play the role, but I wrote it that way because I didn’t want to fall into clichés of writing about a woman, what I would expect a woman to do. That allowed me to not be pigeonholed by gender but to be fluid about it. Once you’re writing about a woman you start to write what she will think, so I just write them how I would write myself, and this way it can be very fluid to transfer.

NE The story is framed by a narrator in a nightclub, a world apparently very remote from the village. Who is that narrator, and where is he?

LJM I think he’s everybody. He’s a bell tolling beneath the waters. He’s a sage in a future; he’s a sage in a past. He was the past. He is a witness. He was there when the village was being flooded, and maybe he was one of the men who came to flood the village. He is everything. I wanted for us to be unsure if he’s present or if he’s out of this physical life. It’s a completely different realm.

We shot that in a real club because I wanted the 4:00 AM feeling. Some people say the morning is the best time at a club, but for me it’s depressing. I always feel like I’m wasting my life. It was the wee hours of Sunday morning when everybody’s thinking about work, the times ahead, and there are just a few individuals remaining, holding onto this music or whatever it is in there that makes their life worthwhile. We don’t have clubs in my country; we just have spots where people can dance. So, this is actually a real place, but of course I changed the texture of the light. 

NE How did you work with your composer, Yu Miyashita?

LJMYu is a noise electronic musician. I’ve always liked his work because he creates not from language, not from structure, but he’s very well trained. I had this idea of merging the lesiba, which is an instrument from Lesotho that I love very much, with a minimalistic, classical structure. I would make some bizarre sounds and send them to him, and then he would play around with my sounds. In the beginning, we weren’t sure if we could do it, but with time it started to be comfortable. I didn’t go to film school, so it’s easy for me to create without thinking about the technical aspect. I create by feeling. The common ground was to create based on the feeling, not a structure, not if it sounds good technically, but whether it speaks to me. 

A blurry, movement-filled still of an African man gesturing against a horse with a spear while holding it by the reins from the front.

Still from Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, 2019.

NE You’re sitting against a Zoom backdrop of flying horses. You’re writing a film featuring a talking horse. And there are horses throughout Resurrection, notably in its opening face-off between a horse and a man. What does the horse represent to you?

LJM I think I’m here to find out. In Resurrection, it wasn’t a horse to me. It was more of a beast. Of course, I was aware that it was a horse, and I wanted it to do things that horses do, but I saw it in a different light. And I saw it as a beast not in a scary or evil way but in the way that beasts have this human basis. In South Africa, everybody relates the horse to the spirit. And there’s ambiguity that comes with this. The painting behind me is from the Book of Revelation. It’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer. I’m working on a video installation inspired by this Book of Revelation. So, it was actually by accident that they all link. And I start to think about that now, and I think, Oh, yes. But I’ve yet to find out what it has in store for me.

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection will be screening virtually with the New York African Film Festival on February 4–14. 

Nicholas Elliott is a writer and translator based in Queens. His translation of Duras/Godard Dialogues, a collection of conversations between Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard, was recently published by The Film Desk.

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