When your first movie is as phenomenally remarkable as Shemu
Joyah’s Seasons of a Life
, it becomes
inevitable that your next movie will be judged in comparison to the first
movie. Which is what is happening with Shemu Joya’s second movie, The Last Fishing Boat
. I have met
Malawians who swear that Seasons
the best movie they have ever watched, inclusive of everything they have
watched from Hollywood, to Bollywood, to Nollywood.
So when I went to the Kamuzu Institute for Sports on 26th
December, 2012, to see The Last Fishing
, that question was on my mind: which is the better movie? It was also
the first question Joyah was asked by reporters soon after the screening. Joyah’s
response was, predictably, that it’s up to Malawian moviegoers to make that
|Joyah talking to reporters after the screening of 'The Last Fishing Boat' at Kamuzu Institute for Sports, 26th Dec 2012|
a love story culminating into a deeply Malawian philosophy of what lies at the
heart of motherhood, Boat
is a love
story whose denouement unfolds around the complex vortex of polygamy, serial
monogamy, homosexuality and inter-racial love. A British tourist, Richard
(played by Irishman Robert Loughlin) in tow with his fiancé, Elena (played by
Czech musician Tereza Mirovicova) get caught up in a double love triangle on
the shores of Lake Malawi, in the lake tourist district of Malawi.
The plot suggests the tourist wants to buy a bawo
board, but as the story unfolds, he
wants more. He is infatuated with one of the village women, Abiti Anefa (Flora
Suya), whom he first catches a glimpse of as she is bathing in the lake, and he
is jogging along the beach. His overtures toward her start with him leaving her
money on the beach, and later at a grocery store. She hesitantly accepts the
money but then gives it away to children or beggars.
Abiti Anefa is the third wife of Che Yusufu (played by Hope
Chisanu; “Abiti” is a salutation in the same manner as “Ms”, while “Che” is a
salutation in the same manner as “Mr” in Yao culture), a fisherman who has seen
better days on the lake. His father bequeathed to him fifteen boats, but as
catches become smaller and smaller, the economic fortunes of the trade also
dwindle. His is now down to his last boat. The tourist finds two men playing bawo
along the lake, and he asks to be
taught how to play it. They make him win the first game, but on subsequent
matches he keeps losing. Unable to accept being defeated by a Malawian, he goes
after the bawo
board, owned by Yusuf.
But he wants more than the board.
He takes to stalking Abiti Anefa, until one evening he is
found peeping at her house from behind a tree. Che Yusuf finds him, but is
unaware of what is going on. He assumes Che Yusuf is coming to buy the bawo
board. Che Yusuf invites him in so
they can negotiate over the board. There Richard comes face to face with Abiti
Anefa. Her husband asks her to brew tea, and also to translate between both of
them (Richard doesn’t understand Chichewa; Che Yusuf doesn’t understand
Richard stops haggling for the board, and in a daring move, openly
declares his love for Abiti Anefa. Abiti orders him to leave, while cleverly
mistranslating the dialogue to Che Yusuf so he does not know what is going on.
Richard leaves without buying the bawo
showed at the Kamuzu
Institute for Sports in Lilongwe on 26th December 2012, Abiti Anefa’s strategic
yet prudent mistranslation between the two languages drew a loud, admiring
ovation from the audience.
Meanwhile, Richard’s fiancé, Elena, has discovered what
Richard is up to. She gets her vengeance by starting an affair with Yusuf’s
son, Mustafa (played by Robert Kalua), a tour guide who is also a male
stripper. He tells Elena he is 30 percent gay and 70 percent straight. Elena
goes missing for several days, and Richard has no idea where she is. She spends
the time with Mustafa, giving the movie it’s most x-rated scene.
But Richard manages to sneak into Abiti Anefa’s house while
Yusuf is away. Again he declares his love for her. The scene gives the movie
its most philosophical moment. Richard asks Abiti Anefa why she is clinging to
a polygamist, as a third wife, upon which Abiti confronts the hypocritical
claims made by monogamy. She tells him that as an openly polygamous man, Che Yusuf
treats her with respect, unlike Richard who cheapens her by throwing money at
her in hopes of luring her. African polygamists follow societal norms when they
want another woman, which keep families together. In Western traditions people engage in serial
monogamy, divorcing one spouse after another, and tearing families apart. Richard is forced to wonder what
feminists in his country would think of this.
As the movie nears the end, Abiti Anefa excuses herself on
the pretext of going to see a neighbour. She goes to Richard’s house, where she
pleads with him to pay for the board so Che Yusuf can pay a government fishing
tax. Meanwhile, the villagers see her, and mobilize themselves, believing that
Abiti is secretly seeing Richard. Together with Elena, the villagers,
brandishing burning torches, storm the house. Yusuf enters the house, finds
both Richard and Abiti, and stabs them.
For a moment it looks as if Abiti has died from the
stabbing. Grief and remorse grip Che Yusuf, and he takes his own life.
Meanwhile, Abiti recovers and the movie continues having given the audience the
impression that it had come to an end. This gives the movie its major weakness. Richard, in an arm sling, and Elena are
seen leaving for the airport, not on talking terms. The end comes when Elena
stops the car by the roadside, and goes out to meet with Mustafa who is in another
car coming from the opposite direction. There she declares her love for him,
and tells him she wants to stay. Next thing the audience sees is Elena’s
suitcase being hurled out of the car, and the car speeding off.
Other reviewers have suggested that the inclusion of
homosexuality in Boat
message about cultural degeneration. This is not borne out by the perspective
presented by Mustafa. He wonders how come homosexuality is punishable by law,
yet adultery, also considered a social taboo, is not. He wonders why some
people “get angry on behalf of God.” Responding to a question from a journalist
at the end of the showing, Joyah said although the issue of sexual minorities
was being championed by the donor community, homosexuality was a Malawian
issue, both historically and traditionally.
The question as to whether Seasons
is a better movie than Boat
is probably inevitable, but is it really necessary? Although coming from the
same director, these are two different movies, with two different philosophies.
Whether in Seasons
, the genius of Shemu Joyah lies in
delving deep into the human psyche to draw out the innermost meanings that
define us, both weaknesses and strengths.
, it was the metaphysical depth of the meaning of motherhood, while in Boat
it is the core of cultural traditions
that on the surface may appear meaningless, but whose contradictions serve to
give us pause for reflection and re-examination of our beliefs.
He may have directed only two movies thus far, but the distinctness of Joyah's approach to film-making suggests the makings of a uniquely Malawian film genre.
Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in The Nation newspaper and on the newspaper's website.