For the purposes of this review I am trying to find flaws in director and fashion photographer Andrew Dosunmu’s sumptuous second feature, Mother of George, but I have to admit that this is turning into an arduous struggle. You see, it’s not that the film is perfect; it’s just that it comes so very very close; close enough to give it a straight five out of five, close enough, even, to say that it has already left a mark on ideas about modern African cinema. Ok perhaps not a mark but a scratch; a deep and sonorous scratch nonetheless.
Set mostly in Brooklyn, New York, the film is a tale of West African tradition interwoven into American culture, it is, as Dosunmu has called it ‘an immigrants story in a similar vein to The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America’ except in this instance the immigrants are Nigerian, or more specifically, Yoruba Nigerians, whose community has re surfaced amidst the sprawling muddle of the Big Apple.
Adenike (played by the Zimbabwean born Danai Gurira who AMC fans may recognise from The Walking Dead) and Ayodele (who is brought to life brilliantly by Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankole) are a newly married couple struggling to create a family of their own and in attempting to do so, Adenike takes some frighteningly desperate measures to conceive her much promised first child.
The plot is simple but both the subtext and the cultural implications are far from it. Moreover, the manner in which the narrative unfolds is so thoughtful, so full of reverence for image, space and sound that it makes one question where this intelligent and tranquil brand of cinema has been hiding for so long.
The opening scenes are perhaps the most exemplary of the film’s overall style. The first is a crowded street moving in slow motion to a soundtrack of echoes and reverberating drums. The camera remains out of focus for some time and the blue colour cast that dominates the film makes it seem like we are watching a chaotic sea of silhouettes charging through Manhattan. The second is Adenike and Ayodele’s wedding, which seems to work in contrast to the previous scene. Instead of the disunity of strangers walking amongst each other we are presented with a harmonious dance of friends and family members dressed in gold and ochre attire and who are smiling, laughing and performing the familiar Nigerian wedding rite of dashing dollar bills at the bride.
The pattern we experience here – the dance between togetherness and divergence – is what characterises the remainder of the movie. There are scenes of the couple making love in which the deep brown tones of the two bleed into each other and there are whole segments in which Adenike and Ayodele seem terribly remote from each other. In one shot we see Adenike standing in front of a two part mirror while arguing with her husband and a line in the reflection reminds us that this sense of division, exists not just between the two of them but also within Adenike herself. Does she cling to the traditional values of her tribe or succumb to more western ideals? Will she maintain faith in her partnership with Ayo or give in to the demands of her fierce and bothersome mother-in-law? Either way her actions could destroy or unite the family.
These dilemmas, divisions and converging differences in opinions can easily be found in numerous Nollywood movies. The difference is in the ephemeral and opaque manner of the storytelling. Sundance award winning Cinematographer, Brad Young’s perspective in the film, for example is reminiscent of Christopher Doyle’s in In The Mood For Love or Wei-Yang’s in YiYi. Instead of photographing characters directly he tends to shoot through or at transparent and glass surfaces: mirrors, windows, and veils. The characters, also, are rarely seen at the absolute centre of the frame, but instead are often tucked into corners or merely take up half of the screen. This is possibly one of Mother of George’s most powerful attributes; that it often denies us absolute visual and thus narrative clarity and that in doing so it transforms a potentially passive viewer into a curious voyeur, who must, interject themselves into the story to tell it for themselves and become the instrument through which the films numerous anxieties, terrors and dreams are brought to life.
In a brief question and answers session at this years London Film Festival Dosunmu (a Yoruba man himself) summed up Mother of George as a ‘love story’, but he didn’t quite allude to what he meant. Was he merely referring to Nike and Ayo’s love for each other, their love for family and culture or separate loves of self? Or perhaps his comment was more personal and he was referring to his own series of passions; for Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for the classic pre-colonial west African soundtrack that encompass the film, for the Byzantium painting, which influenced the wedding scene, or for the flavoursome hues (of blue, gold and yellow) which dominate and which were inspired by the visual palette of Nigerian deities? Clearly it is a passion for all of the above that colours Mother of George and what makes the tragic circumstances that it depicts appear so resplendent, so ebullient and so traumatically exquisite.
Mother of George is showing in London at Hackney Picturehouse on Sun Nov 3rd
David Kwaw Mensah is a London born and based photographer, creative writer and film critic. His obsession with all things cinematic has led him to numerous experiments with filmmaking and eventually to the world of photographic stills, where, from behind the camera, he weaves stories, philosophical queries and poetry, attempting always to find the beauty in everyday life. On his blog, shortsighted.blogspot.com, which mostly explores all of the above, he is currently addressing the significance of the photographic portrait in a series titled Everyday People, and the ways in which a portrait can be deemed as an integral part of the narrative of a human life. @DavidKwawMensah Facebook: David Kwaw Mensah
Film Africa is the Royal African Society’s annual festival celebrating the best African cinema from across the continent. Launched in 2011, Film Africa is now the UK’s largest festival of African film and culture. Every year, Film Africa brings London audiences a core programme of fiction and documentary films alongside
a vibrant series of accompanying events, including director Q&As, panel discussions, talks, workshops, master classes, family activities and Film Africa LIVE! music nights.Film Africa recognises and supports new talent through The Baobab Award for Best Short Film, which is judged by a panel of film professionals and offers the winner a £1,000 cash prize towards their next production.
Film Africa 2013 will take place over a ten-day period, 1-10 November, and across six London venues Tickets
- Hold Your Tongue: Yoruba in the Diaspora | Think Africa Press