AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

The Forgotten Kingdom,” the new feature film by American director Andrew Mudge, depicts the story of a rebellious young man called Atang, toiling in inner city Johannesburg. When Atang’s father, living elsewhere in a Joburg township, passes away, he must voyage back to his homeland of Lesotho to honour his father’s wish to be buried in the “forgotten” country of his birth. While at home Atang sparks an intimate connection with an old friend, Dineo. He then embarks on a challenging journey of self-discovery, guided by a mysterious young shepherd, as he readjusts to the now foreign landscape of the Mountain Kingdom and her people.

Here’s the trailer:

Known for having one of the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, the Kingdom of Lesotho has been host to many HIV-centered film projects shot among the nation’s scenic valleys and modest thatched houses. It is almost typical to associate Lesotho with HIV. “The Forgotten Kingdom” once again weaves the pandemic into its overall storyline, though it succeeds at being one of the most visually spectacular films ever shot in the country. By virtue of its particularly wide reach, having been screened across the Unites States, it has become one of the most powerful representations of our country. Still, as usually is the case when one represents another culture, the film is not immune to critique.

The film made its premiere in Lesotho on March 1st to a VIP audience, which included Lesotho’s monarchy (King Letsie III and Queen ‘Mamohato Seeiso) in its ranks. The film had been on peoples’ lips since it was shot in 2011. The hype had only intensified after its international debut in 2013 and it’s series of award nominations. I went to the Lesotho premiere fortified with awareness that “no one can tell your story better than you can yourself.”

Before the first frame, several things had been floating in my mind. Firstly the writer/director Andrew Mudge likely had somewhat of a romantic experience with Lesotho, one different from Basotho. Secondly, leading roles are occupied by South African actors while locally-based talent serves as support. Thirdly, the movie debuted in America (winning awards for the Best Narrative Feature and Best Cinematography at the Woodstock Film Festival) before it came to Lesotho where it was shot. I was a skeptic who wanted answers, so I went into the theatre beaming with curiosity about how my country would be depicted.

Upon watching the film, it became apparent to me that “The Forgotten Kingdom” offers a limited biography of Lesotho. The Lesotho I know is vibrant, transcending the narrative of HIV so often ascribed to it. It is home to visionaries who produce creative work and intellectual property from a first world perspective in a so-called third world country. There is more to the country than blankets, mountains and horse rides.

In addition, some of the details Basotho culture in the film have been altered in strange ways. For example, the blankets (which are an important aspect of our traditional cultural attire) as worn by the protagonist Atang and his shepherd guide are out of place. The shepherd, a young boy, is wearing a blanket only worn by older men who have graduated from initiation school and Atang is initially wearing his blanket like women do. It is not clear why these style choices were made. Was it by error, or was it to make a statement? Regardless, these wardrobe malfunctions, deliberate or not, contradict the way many traditional Basotho see themselves.

The spellings of words and names are also disconnected from the Basotho culture of Lesotho. Dineo, the name of the love interest, should be written as Lineo in Lesotho’s Sesotho language (but pronounced with the “D” sound, as in my name). The spelling of Lineo with a D is the more Western-oriented South African way. These details are an indication that the film is concerned with privileging foreign audiences over those at home in Lesotho.

Yet still, the awesomeness of the landscape captured by the film’s cinematography is something to behold. The setting is a character in itself. Mudge cited that the Director of Photography, Carlos Carvalho, had his work cut out for him because his challenging task was to grade with flawless poise what mother-nature had already brilliantly crafted in Lesotho’s delicate mountains. This was done with admirable artistry.

When the lights came on at the end of the film, I was left with the insight that the film communicates to us as Basotho that we live on a grand movie set, that our stories, trivial as we may assume them to be, deserve audience. Overall, there were a number of elements of The Forgotten Kingdom to appreciate – the cinematography the dialogue and the quality of the acting (the shepherd Lebohang Ntsane stole the show). But my biggest takeaway from the film was the hope that it will summon Basotho writers, filmmakers, aspiring actors and the public as a whole to be more active in telling our own stories. There are a number of Basotho whose creative work warrants greater attention. But for those Basotho in need of a wake-up call, the film speaks in the tone of a travelling messenger who is bewildered and wants to know: “why are you sleeping on your own allure, aesthetics and talent? More especially, why do you flirt with the attractions of foreign lands when you live on a treasure you can explore practically for free?”

* The Forgotten Kingdom opened in theaters on April 4th in Lesotho and on April 11th in South Africa.

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Lineo Segoete

Lineo Segoete, a writer and artist from Lesotho, is part of the creative team of the Morija Museum and Archives and organizer of the Ba Re E Ne Re Literature Festival in Lesotho.

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3 thoughts on “There is more to Lesotho than blankets, mountains and horse rides

  1. Thanks for the critique. I’d really like to watch this film (I’m in Ireland) – perhaps some encouragement might lead the Lesotho embassy here to arrange a screening.

    The plot seems to be a little like Morabo Morojele’s ‘How We Buried Puso’, which, despite having had many long conversations with the man about politics and jazz, I haven’t yet read.

    Does anyone know when/where there will be screenings in UK/Ireland?

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet because it’s not showing in BFN, but I’ll watch it during the Easter break when I’m home.

    Knowing your mind, I trust your opinion. Besides this being an absolutely wonderful piece of writing, the importance of your critique should be upheld by all Basotho, us future leaders of the country, our parents and their peers to help us steer the mindset of their foreign peers, as well as our little brothers and sisters, to grow up with the pride of being “ma-apara-kobo”.

    Lesotho really isn’t just about blankets, mountains and horses, even the outside observers need to realise that. I personally feel insulted when my name is mispronounced, I keep correcting people with sometimes a lot more agitation than maybe is reasonable, “I’m not AmoGelang, I’m AmoHelang!” So the “Dineo” instead of “Lineo” makes my heart bleed a little.

    Blankets are, yes, an imporant part of our culture, sometimes we include them in our phrases of greeting, “Lumelang ma-apara-kobo a matle.”.As a born and bred Mosotho young lady, I know “tumeliso ha e fele”, this means I can greet a person 10 times a day, lol… It’s a sign of peace. I feel the producer and his crew should have done proper research regarding the blankets. Since I haven’t watched the movie, I’m in no place to scrutinise whether the blankets are even worn by their correct emblems-millies representing one part of Lesotho and the mokorotlo another part.

    Talent in Lesotho often leaves me in awe! I’m actually quite excited if our young actor stole the show. Our cries are never heard about how our talent is not up-held by both our country authorities and other countries. This is a step in the right direction.

    Ok, now I feel like I’ve written too much so one last comment! I AM VERY PROUD of the young lady who wrote this article. Apart from her being in her mid-20s instead of having waited 40 more years to write, or wait for another person to write from this angle, she took matters in her own hands. My pride is also stemmed by her gender. The mere fact that she is a female puts a smile on my female heart.

    U e t’soere thipa ka bohaleng ngoan’a khomo. Sesotho ha se tolokoe!

  3. Dear Lineo,

    This is Andrew Mudge – I’m the writer, director, and producer of The Forgotten Kingdom. I really enjoyed you article, and appreciate how well written it was. Your synopsis of the film in the first paragraph is the best I’ve ever seen, and your conclusion (traveling messenger quote) is lovely. Poetic.

    As I am the creator of the film, I thought it would not be out of place for me to address some of the critiques you have brought up.

    1. You say the film is a limited biography of Lesotho – a point of yours which is most aptly summed up in the title of your blog. However, it’s clearly not the intention of The Forgotten Kingdom to represent every aspect of Lesotho. It’s not a documentary film. The true picture of Lesotho is as expansive as the country itself – from poets in Morija, to increased consumerism, Chinese shop owners, textile factory protests, film clubs, Facebook, politics, joblessness, everything you can point a finger at – this is the present ethnography of Lesotho (in addition to blankets, mountains, and horse rides). My film is an allegory. It is an escape to another world. You don’t see any mobile phones in The Forgotten Kingdom, but that does not mean it has betrayed the cellular network industry.

    2. As for the blankets, it was my intention that Atang (the protagonist) wears the blanket totally wrong in the beginning of the film, and then “half-correct” by the middle of the film, and then by the end he is finally wearing it in the proper traditional manner. This evolution in the dress code serves to parallel his inner journey, which is that of becoming a whole again, returning to his blood country. Most Basotho audiences have picked up this, and have appreciated the nuance. It’s an example of wonderful ways that costume design can serve a story. As for the orphan shepherd boy, he is considered a mystical character, half-real, so it makes sense to me that he’d wear something that would not be typical for a kid his age.

    3. As for the spelling of the name Dineo, I’ve always been aware of the traditional spelling (Lineo), but many Basotho living in South Africa and Lesotho spell it with a D, so I knew I could chose either way. I would have preferred the way you spell your name, but my final decision was simply because I didn’t want one more thing to throw off the non-Sotho speaking audiences and press when they report on the film. TFK is often spoken about on radio or TV, and I knew it would drive me crazy to hear everyone pronounce “Lineo” with the L sound, rather than the D – which I knew would happen. In hindsight, I might have considered naming the character something like “Naledi”, which is pronounced as it is spelled, in both Sotho and English. But Dineo (Lineo) is such a lovely name, how could I resist?

    Thank you,
    Andrew

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