Meaning and Experience

I do not think I am alone in searching for “the point” or “what it means” when I watch a movie. I don’t know if this is a distinctly modern desire or not, but it does seem to come naturally to us. What is the point of this? But though it may be natural, it can sometimes lead us away from simply entering the experience of watching a film. It can keep us from encountering something deeper than a single point or a simple meaning.

As I was trying to catch up on the 2021 movies that most people have on their best-of lists—I still haven’t seen everything that is on my to-watch list—I found a film I had seen mentioned a couple times, but probably appeared on lists in 2020 after screening at Sundance. The title alone would be enough to make me watch it, however: This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (US release 2021; streaming on The Criterion Channel or to rent on Amazon Prime).

If you are trying to find the point or the meaning, you are going to have trouble with This Is Not a Burial. The general plot is easy enough to summarize: an elderly woman, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), in a small Lesotho village finds out that her only living son was killed in a mining accident, and she herself loses her will to live. Her town, however, is included among those that are going to be flooded, and the people displaced, when the government decides to build a dam nearby. Not only the town where Mantoa has lived her entire life, but also the graveyard where her entire family is buried, are going to disappear under the flood waters. Such an affront to her history and family rouses her resistance against the purveyors of progress.

That’s the plot, but it’s not necessarily the meaning, which is far more opaque. This Is Not a Burial opens with one of the most mesmerizing opening shots I can recall, and no description is really going to do justice to the colors and the sound. It is (I believe) a single shot, revolving around a room that appears to be some kind of bar or lounge, with several people in various states of inebriation nodding along to an African instrument called a lesiba. Slowly, slowly, the camera finally centers on the player of the lesiba (Jerry Mofokeng), sitting in an alcove, and then begins to zoom in on him. He begins to tell a story about a flood, and throughout the movie acts sort of like a Greek chorus as the story unfolds. It has the feeling of a parable, mingled with both local and Biblical language.

Throughout the movie, I found myself searching for meaning, or searching for the point of it. But every time I thought I had settled on a general direction (community, family, tradition, progress vs. preservation, the vagaries of history and the impossibility of disentangling good and bad), I was immediately unsettled by the next scene. The synopsis at The Criterion Channel calls it “impressionistic” and that is the best descriptor, I think. The life of Mantoa impresses itself—she impresses herself—on the people with whom she comes into contact and on the events happening around her. More than that, she presses down on the viewer, leaving indentations and grooves, little irritations (in a positive sense) on the mind and the senses. All of that is infused and surrounded by one of the most brilliantly colored settings I have ever seen.

In the final scenes, we think that we’re finally going to get a resolution of the story, but Mantoa again refuses to let either the construction workers and government officials—or us—be resolved. Her “resurrection” is a shedding of her mourning clothes, but even that does not feel like an adequate interpretation. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection was the most enthralling experience I had watching a movie last year.  

Check out the Saints and Cinema episode on our favorite movies of last year at