Film Reviews

REVIEW: Leaving Africa

Hot Docs 2015


Finland, 89 min.
Directed by Iiris Härmä
International Premiere

Iiris Härmä’s affectionate documentary Leaving Africa opens on scenes of sweet domesticity. We meet Riitta, a 66-year-old Finnish woman, and her Ugandan friend, 63-year-old Catherine, nicknamed Kata. Self-confessed “old crows,” they have been living together in a pretty cottage in Uganda for many years and love chatting about food and other homey topics.

With lucid simplicity, Härmä depicts their apparently idyllic lives. A long time ago, Riitta got over the culture shock of transitioning from snowy Finland to the shimmering colour and heat of Africa. A repeated longshot crystalizes the white woman and the black woman’s ease with each other. On their verandah under a peaceful night sky, Kata dances to an African beat while Riitta sits and watches. When one of them calls the other “madam,” the joking response is always “There is no madam here.” Rather than shooting talking head interviews of Riitta and Kata, Härmä films them in intimate dialogue scenes.

We get a little jolt when we discover that both women work for an agency that among other female-empowering activities, offers sex education classes to Ugandans from a variety of religious beliefs. In one scene, Riitta matter-of-factly talks about the acute sensitivity of the clitoris—more sensitive than the penis, she tells bemused or smirking young men—and delighted women.

In their classes, Riitta, a doctor, and Kata, the head of the agency, also talk about family planning and condoms in a country where AIDS is rampant. They dispel myths like birth control kills babies by preventing sperm cells from reaching their destination, and challenge male distaste for wearing condoms. Overall, the women promote gender equality as a just and practical way to diminish the country’s rampant poverty.

A ghostly shot of a highway at night and a vulnerable-looking little girl on a traffic island signals a reversal in the lives of the two women who are happy at home and at work. Someone has written an anonymous letter to parliament accusing Riitta and Kata of being open lesbians luring children into perverse behaviour.

The anonymous letter plays into virulent anti-gay campaigns pushed by certain Ugandan politicians, campaigns that led to a ban on homosexuality backed up by severe punishments. A 2009 attempt had been shot down by international, including Canadian, pressure, and the new action was played as standing up for Uganda’s sovereign right to protect its “moral values.” Of course, political opportunism and government corruption are at play, not to mention male fear of teaching that encourages women to demand change.

The stakes are high, but Leaving Africa is a powerful film that deals sensitively with these volatile issues.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sat, May 2 9:15 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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