A poetic look at South Africa’s complex history – The Hollywood Reporter

“I have to be careful how I remember my memories.”

Filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela begins his insightful documentary There is love with this insightful declaration. It is an invitation, notice and guiding principle for her poetic meditation on a childhood affected by apartheid violence in South Africa. Under Bongela’s guidance, memories are malleable forces. They reach into the past, haunt the present, and creep into the future.

There is love

The bottom row

It models how to confront history and complex legacies.

Place: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Director: Milisutando Bongela

2 hours 8 minutes

Bongela sifts through his memories and gathers them together with those of his ancestors and other members of the Model C generation (a term used to describe the cohort of children who integrated former whites-only schools in South Africa). She observes them with a keen sense of responsibility, interrogates them tenderly, and then shapes them into a tender and intimate narrative. There is love is a long-term journey that begins and ends in the Transkei, an apartheid project created to house black Xhosa-speaking people deprived of South African citizenship.

Exceptionally, Bongela and DP and editor Hankyeol Lee connect and enhance archival footage to map this story. During the film, they describe how representatives of apartheid tried to advertise to the world the formation of the Transkei and other “homelands” (as they called them) for black people, how the government moved the Xhosa people into these spaces in the early 1970s, and how the inhabitants in turn created their own communities. These montages – brutal, revealing and sometimes disturbing – wrap around the screen or are framed in whimsical backgrounds (resembling pages from a scrapbook). Sometimes they are backed by soaring orchestral scores or a chorus of haunting syncopated breaths.

The documentary begins with Bongela’s childhood in the Transkei. Through a voice-over, the director recounts how as a child she was fed a “diet of suggestions” and stories that made her appear as if she had not lived through apartheid. After all, she grew up in an all-black neighborhood and never experienced segregation or police attack dogs unleashed on her. But the older she got, the more she realized that her distance from the most overt violence didn’t mean she wasn’t still “inside a dirty experiment.”

Bongela’s language privileges melody and strong imagery, turning standard exposition into a literary experience. The first of the five sections in There is love includes recent footage of Bongela’s grandmother knitting around her home in the former Transkei and photographs of the documentary maker as a child. Conversations with her elder offer a direct confrontation with a more complex nostalgia, as her grandmother blames Nelson Mandela for the ruin of the Transkei. (The nominally independent nation was dissolved in 1994 with the official end of apartheid.) Through these moments, Bongela effectively established one of There is loveThe central tensions of: How do you combat the brutal historical undercurrents of the place you call home?

This question—a constant in a world organized around capitalism—leads us to the following sections, chapters that grapple with the formation of the Transkei and the propaganda that flourished in Bongela’s youth. Here, the director creates a refreshing comfort with experimentation. Among the documentaries at Sundance this year, where Bongela’s film premiered in the World Documentary Competition section, There is love reflects the best of the form, harnessing its freedom and potential.

The rapid changes between the past and the present constitute the second half of the There is love, which deals with the encounters between the two time frames and between self and history. Bongela interviews students from the Model C generation and contrasts their reserved responses as adults with the jubilation of the post-apartheid years. Video clip of news interviews with black students and parents reveals layers of racism directed at them by white broadcasters. Commemorations of Mandela are closely monitored, questioning the overall reverence he received at the height of his popularity among black and white South Africans. Bongela also interviewed her white South African friends about the role that race and the legacy of apartheid played in their self-understanding. Again, Lee and Bongella’s editorial choice—overlaying the audio tracks on a black screen—subtly heightens the friction of these encounters with history. Bongela makes brief on-screen appearances, and in one of them a text is read about the early days of school integration that teases the violent undercurrents of black children entering these formerly all-white spaces.

There is love is an ambitious project that frankly navigates the tangled mess we call identities, trying to honor their multiplicity without succumbing to pretension. It can be dense and gripping at times as the over two hour film revolves around Bongela’s stories, painful truths, impressive revelations and poetic meditations. The film’s final act – which chronicles wider South African history and focuses on the rituals and cultural heritage of the Xhosa people – returns us to the present-day region that used to be the Transkei. Armed with the knowledge generously provided to us by Bongela, the landscape takes on a different meaning, a more complex energy. We are left with complex feelings, yes, but also with a gift, a model of how to weave between past, present and future.

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