Hot Docs

Death of a Saint Review: Building a Mystery

Hot Docs 2024

5 mins read

Death of a Saint
(Denmark, 91 min.)
Dir. Patricia Bbaale Bandak
Program: International Competition (International premiere)


The desire for closure can feel like one is running a race where the finish line is constantly just out of reach.  For director Patricia Bbaale Bandak, the mystery surrounding the murder of her mother on Christmas Eve 24 years earlier has been a marathon of emotions and unanswered questions.

Now a mother herself, Bandak is determined to finally put the Rubik’s Cube pieces in place to see the full picture of that fateful night.  Documenting her journey back to her birthplace of Uganda, Death of a Saint follows the director as she attempts to gain insight into both her mother’s life and the assailants responsible for the crime. However, digging for the truth will not be an easy task, especially when those within her family seem content to let the past remain buried.

Complicating things further is the fact that Bandak is a stranger to her motherland. After gunmen infiltrated her family home, shooting her mother and wounding her baby brother, her father relocated her and her siblings to Denmark. Robbed of both her mother and her country, the audience observes as the director struggles with her own sense of identity while reconnecting with her estranged family members.

As the filmmaker stitches back together the torn familial fabric, the documentary oscillates between a captivating exploration of motherhood and an investigative true crime tale.  It is in the former where Death of a Saint surfs a wave of emotion as Bandak learns more and more about her mother’s personality and traits.  Now older than when her mother was murdered, the sense of time lost really hits home as the director faces her own challenges with being a mom.  This includes the sense of guilt that comes with leaving her daughter behind to shoot the film, and the moments of joyful bonding the pair experience when they eventually explore all Uganda has to offer together.

It is through her interactions with her own daughter that the viewer envisions what could have been had her own mother still been alive.  This adds an extra layer of frustration to Bandak’s investigation. Although she is eager to learn more about the assailants, who where never caught by police, and their possible connection to her mother, others do not carry that same sense of urgency or enthusiasm.  As if adhering to an unspoken code of silence, everyone seems to have theories as to why the family was targeted but few are willing to fully vocalize them.

Death of a Saint makes it clear that even if everyone was forthcoming with what they may or may not know, their answers would not necessarily bring the closure Bandak seeks. This is most evident when she decides to sit down with those who have been imprisoned for murder.  Speaking with various hired gunmen and killers, the director finds herself being pulled into a quicksand of trauma and disappointment.

Instead of uncovering profound insight on the killer mindset, she finds cold-hearted individuals who were either doing a job or murdered for superfluous reasons.

Similar to the underwhelming revelations of those who have taken lives, Bandak must swim across a river of disillusionment before reaching a sea of peace. As her documentary effectively captures, there is a sense of shame that often comes with not obtaining that which you have been obsessing over. The need to find closure can be an overwhelming and unfulfilling cycle.

This juxtaposition between the human need to tie everything up in a nice bow, and the realities that the ribbon often remains unraveled, adds a fascinating layer to Death of a Saint.  Bandak crafts an enthralling tale of family, loss, and the secrets that often lay in the middle.  Effective as both an intimate work and a pulsing true crime tale, the documentary shows that, even when loved ones are no longer with us, family bonds are never truly broken.

Death of Saint premiered at Hot Docs 2024.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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