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'Mother, I Am Suffocating' is a dizzying poem that becomes clear and beautiful

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The early images of Mother I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You come like a barrage of impressions your mind can’t organize: a tree against a gray sky, then narrow sewage canals running across the screen with mist rising up as if they were lovely streams. Bats perch upside down on a long wooden beam before they launch into flight. Water runs over rocks and grass, and then a figure in a distorted, partly abstracted image carrying a crucifix. For about five minutes, the only sounds are birds and what may be the sound of a camera moving along. It’s all in black and white, and filmed in the close-to-square dimensions of older films.

The first speech comes from a woman’s voice repeating the title of the film — “Mother, I am suffocating. This will be my last film about you.” The voice struggles, while the picture is a tight profile of the woman carrying that cross, sweat dripping down her face. It takes time to adjust to the images in Mother I Am Suffocating. For a while, the connections seem elusive, and the film doesn’t jell.

Yet an eerie, urgent feel drives the movie, and it becomes entrancing. As the woman walks along the crowded dirt streets of a town in Lesotho, the country locked inside the Republic of South Africa, people stare at her with looks that range from curious to bewildered to disdainful. At times, another figure wanders the same terrain — a young woman in short shorts, knee-high boots, over-styled hair, and heavy makeup.

Men, women, and children watch — bystanders, vendors in a market. The voice sounds tinny, brittle, and harsh, as if it comes through a bad loudspeaker. And bit by bit, the woman indicts her mother, in angry even vicious words.

Later, she says, “I am ashamed of you. Shame is yours.” And, near the end of the picture, “Mother, I love you. I hate you.”

So, at its core, Mother I Am Suffocating seems to be a broadside from a daughter to her mother. It can be obscure and alienating, but the film takes on warmth and yearning for a mother who apparently turned from traditional tribal culture to an imposed religious fanaticism, which has distorted the country and its people by rejecting tribal ways and knowledge. And the daughter charges, “Endless prayers replaced tales.”

Then, sometime in the middle of this dislocating movie, it becomes clear that the film is not a love/hate message from an actual daughter to an actual mother — it’s a letter from the male filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, to his country, which he has left to live elsewhere in exile.

A key moment comes when a man helps people into a boat and tells them they are now safe. From there, the film grows more obviously about a country that has been taken over and turned into tyranny — a country where the poetic narrator says it’s now easier to get guns than bread.

If you have patience, and let the movie come to you, Mother I Am Suffocating carries tremendous emotional weight. The feel and look of the picture are unfamiliar, and it comes from out of a fog, but it’s the agonized wail of a man yearning for the country that has pushed him away, and his inability to know if he still wants this mother or not.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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