Aliens and apartheid have been the subjects of recent South African films, offering an extremely limited view of one of the world’s most emergent countries. Not since 2005’s Oscar-winning Tsotsi has a film about present-day South Africa reached American cinemas (save the overlooked documentary Dear Mandela), and while biopics like Invictus and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom lionized the country’s first black president, they failed to provide any insight about what life is like for the country’s 50 million residents today. Even District 9, for all its supposedly rich symbolism, eventually succumbed to alien action tropes over social commentary. As a result, audiences have gained as much insight about South Africa as they would about American society today through the lens of Transformers and Lincoln.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Andrew Mudge
Producer: T. R. Boyce Jr., Pieter Lombaard, Cecil Matlou, Andrew Mudge
Writer: Andrew Mudge
Cinematographer: Carlos Carvalho
Music: Robert Miller
Cast: Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoeshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube, Jerry Phele
Country: USA/South Africa/Lesotho
US Distributor: Independent
So it’s ironic that a film set in the tiny landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho has arrived to provide this missing insight into contemporary South Africa. Andrew Mudge’s The Forgotten Kingdom offers a timeless coming-of-age tale reflecting the experience of the first post-apartheid, post-AIDS epidemic generation, struggling to find their identity in a society experiencing the growing pains that accompany economic growth and progress. It is an imperfect but earnest feature-length debut for the American writer/director, who has a knack for walking the thin line between social commentary and syrupy drama, as well as terrific cinematic vision. Even when the dialogue doesn’t feed the soul, the cinematography supplies a feast for the eyes.
Atang Mokoenya (Zenzo Ngqobe, who played a supporting role in Tsotsi) spends his days drinking and carousing with his friends in Johannesburg. He is estranged from his widowed father, who brought him to South Africa from Lesotho when Atang was a boy. Atang has a quiet, brooding sadness about him; he knows there’s more to life than partying, but he doesn’t have the energy or encouragement to go after it. When his father dies of AIDS, Atang reluctantly returns to his former home in Lesotho for the pre-arranged burial ceremony. He holds no connection to the local culture and its supernatural traditions, and wants nothing more than to return to Johannesburg. And then, as is often the case when a plot needs a jumping-off point, he meets a girl.
But The Forgotten Kingdom is not simply Garden State reimagined in the Lesotho highlands, and Mudge explores issues deeper than just Atang’s apparent narcissism. His love interest, Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba), is in fact his old childhood crush, and the critical bridge to the alien but oddly familiar world of his home village. Dineo patiently helps Atang rediscover his heritage and his history, despite his hesitance that “you don’t see this sort of thing in South Africa”. Lesotho is a world he can’t understand, and his feelings of detachment will resonate with many South Africans who relocate to urban centers and lose their connection to home.
An early scene in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom depicted the Xhosa ritual Mandela performed as a young boy, and how present his village identity was throughout his life, not only in the use of his clan name (“Madiba”), but in his decision to retire and be buried in his village. Atang never experienced a similar childhood ritual in his village and has been lost throughout his life without it. Of course he eventually recaptures his native identity in Lesotho, but not before The Forgotten Kingdom takes a well-meaning but overly baked detour through Disney territory. When Dineo’s disapproving father moves the family away, Atang sets off on a journey with a precocious orphan boy through the highlands of Lesotho to find her.
While necessary as a plot device to show how Atang has matured into his true self, the quest leaves much of the rich material back in the village on the table. Dineo’s sister has AIDS, and while Mudge doesn’t shy away from portraying the shame it brings to Dineo’s prideful father, he also doesn’t fully explore Atang’s experience as someone who lost a family member to the disease (South Africa and Lesotho are among the top four countries worldwide for HIV/AIDS prevalence). Issues of poverty, crime, and the exploitative nature of South Africa’s mining industry are also brought to light, but briefly, and not in the context of how Atang views them through the lens of his evolving identity. In short, a more urgent film may have developed had The Forgotten Kingdom stayed in one place and wrestled with these issues from a larger perspective.
It may be for the best that Mudge moves the action along, however, since the occasionally wooden dialogue struggles to engage during static scenes. More importantly, taking The Forgotten Kingdom into the highlands allows Lesotho’s awe-inspiring landscape to develop as another rich character in the story, and serves as the canvas on which to paint the colorful mysticism and superstition that underlies many of the kingdom’s traditional customs and beliefs. The committed acting – by the ensemble but particularly by Zenzo Ngqobe - and gorgeous cinematography are also well served by the energy of a more dynamic story.
As an outsider (who briefly lived in Lesotho), Mudge honors the local culture and avoids common stereotypes about African “exoticism”, depicting a South Africa and Lesotho very much facing the same challenges as the rest of the world in 2014. Ultimately and despite its minor flaws, The Forgotten Kingdom achieves its objective as a thoughtful meditation on self-discovery and the importance of home, and serves as a gentle reminder that when society progresses two steps forward, culture often remains one step behind.