Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Milisuthando Review: Radical Decolonial Cinema

2023 Sundance Film Festival

8 mins read

(South Africa/Colombia, 128 min.)
Dir. Milisuthando Bongela
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)


Every festival perusing the Sundance line-up for inspiration simply must program Milisuthando. This exhilarating auteur film by Milisuthando Bongela heralds the most distinctive voice in competition this year. This years-in-the-making film is aesthetically rigorous and thematically ambitious. As Bongela plays with a collage of archives, family videos, informal interviews, and verité moments, Milisuthando explores the lateral trauma of apartheid. It’s a lot to take on as she grapples with her identity as a Black woman in South Africa and the nation’s collective past. She executes it marvellously, though, with an engrossing essay that uses personal revelations to unearth universal truths.

Bongela’s family and personal history forms one current of the film. She reflects upon growing up in Transkei, a former unrecognized state populated by the Xhosa in lower South Africa. Bongela looks back on life in Transkei in the 1980s and 1990s. She reframes the dynamics of racism and colonialism that shaped her formative years. Living in a state that basically co-signed apartheid, Bongela recalls seeing Blackness all around her. However, she realizes that she lacked any notion of race until she encountered some strange white people years later. Sifting through archives of her family history interchangeably with fragments of South Africa’s recorded history, Bongela considers the social construction of race and racism. She probes deep within herself, asking open and reflective questions in voiceover, making sense of herself as a Black woman who grew up with no real conception of “Blackness” aside from murmurings about Mandela from her family.


Friends and Grandma Bongela

The learned aspects of racial identity and racism fuel further considerations as Bongela’s subjects age. She finds a jaw-dropper of an archival reel in which an offscreen white filmmaker interviews Black children at school. The kids, speaking in the early 1990s, answer questions about their favourite subjects. One girl replies, “Afrikaans.” The interviewer, audibly confused asks, “What’s that?” She’s not being coy, but rather trying to learn more about the colonial dynamics in which kids from bantus (unrecognized territories) make sense of the world. She quizzes them about Mandela’s importance. “He’ll free the Black people,” one replies. Already, these kids sense the functions of the state to oppress their families.

Bongela returns to these students later in the film as she stages a class reunion with the interviewees. Now in their thirties, they still know all the patriotic songs and pledges by heart. They shudder as they realize how easily things they tried to unlearn resurface in their minds.

The film has an additional guide to probe Bongela’s consideration of the relationship between selfhood and statehood. Milisuthando frequently returns to images of the filmmaker’s grandmother Xoliswa. She observes as the elderly woman tends to her modest home and generally keeps to herself during her final years. The film witnesses a kind of internalised apartheid as Xoliswa shuts herself off from the world. Her grandmother often gazes beyond the garrison that surrounds her home and wonders about people outside it. She speculates about a family member who married an Indian woman. She shakes her head that he should have married somebody Black. (Grandma Bongela has strong opinions about Mandela, too, that aren’t particularly flattering.) In observing her grandmother and capturing her rituals, such as burning herbs to cleanse her spirit, Bongela acknowledges markers of Blackness she couldn’t recognize as markers of identity until now.


Tough Conversations

Milisuthando also tackles racial dynamics through tensions that arise in Bongela’s own relationships. The film features two explosive sequences in which she discuss whiteness and Blackness with two friends. The first is her producer, Marion Isaacs, who is also a long-time friend. An altercation sparks during their travels. They’re sharing a room together and Isaacs asks Bongela to turn the music down. Bongela snaps. The request, she explains, exemplifies the insidiousness of white privilege. She feels that her friend, in asking to lower the volume, veils her authority over a Black woman through an order delivered with a smile. The charge catches Isaac off-guard. She spirals into a soul-searching confessional about the nature of their friendship.

The scene recalls a cringe-worthy moment from Rebeca Huntt’s Beba in which the filmmaker challenges her friends’ white privilege. Whereas Huntt’s staged scene, unsignalled in its fiction, uses her friends as collateral damage to bolster her self-image, Bongela engages her friend in a brutally tough conversation through which they both may heal. This isn’t about “her”—it’s about “them.”

Bongela withholds the visual through most of this conversation. A grainy grey screen fuzzes intermittently as the conversation unfolds. It forces an active listening experiment with this exchange between a Black woman and a white woman. The conversation documents the first real hard acknowledgement of the differences that exist between the best of friends. With this conversation and a subsequent one with a friend that is less dramatic and more existential, Bongela explores the role of dialogue and exchange. The film confronts shared trauma of apartheid, and ignorance to it, that requires generations to heal. Rather than pretend to be colour-blind, as Isaacs did, the film admits that dynamics are simply part of reality. None who grew up in a colonial state can pretend otherwise.


Documenting an Awakening

Bongela creates a radical form of decolonial cinema that shatters all the rules. Formally, Milisuthando is a kaleidoscopic essay film in the fashion of Sans Soleil and A Night of Knowing Nothing, and like those film’s it’s a hypnotic journey through media and memory. It’s a five-part, first person exploration of South African apartheid, Blackness, and the perceived invisibility of race. More than that, though, it combs through the archives and weaves between past and present to consider loss amid the fissures of history. It’s a tough and frank feat of self-assessment that asks if we’ll ever really dissolve racial divides. But as the film ends with a return to Grandma Bongela’s home and an ode to the spirits of goats that linger long after the animals give their meat for stew, Milisuthando finds great power in its unabashed assertion of identity.


Milisuthando premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

Previous Story

20 Days in Mariupol Captures History from the Front Lines

Next Story

Matthieu Rytz Talks Deep Rising and Going Deeper than Avatar

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00