The film opens with the declaration of the state of emergency and jerky images. Nothing is aestheticized without motivation: indeed, it deals with a period of accelerated History, a difficult time to grasp where the facts are so emotive that they are charged with imagination, where truth is readily concealed. Zulu Love Letter reveals a complex memory, loaded with pain and anger.
Set in 1996, two years after the 1994 elections that brought Mandela to power, and referring to an assassination perpetrated ten years earlier, it is actually burningly topical, showing that the South African people’s trauma is still very much alive. Thandeka, a Black woman, militated as a journalist, suffered the worst kind of violence in prison, and gave birth to a deaf-and-dumb girl as a result. At the end of the Apartheid, she doesn’t become neurotic but finds herself in limbo, in this in-between state where nothing is settled yet, where the trauma is not forgotten and everything remains stuck. In this state, she cannot subscribe to the official discourse of reconciliation.
This schism between the public sphere (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and the private sphere (the individual’s acceptance of historical changes and coming to terms with mourning) is the interesting part of Ramadan Suleman’s film. It echoes his first feature film Fools (1997) that dealt with the impact of violence on the Black community during the Apartheid. Thandeka cannot accept the amnesty suggested by the Commission so long as she cannot accept the purification of the past in her own body and family. She unsuccessfully looks for answers and tries to find herself, without realizing that her own daughter is showing her the way by making love-letter pearl embroideries, in the style of Zulu folk costumes. Until she meets Me’Tau, an old woman from Soweto who finds Thandeka because she witnessed her daughter’s murder and because she wants to help her track down the torturers to find her dead daughter’s remains that she would like to bury according to tradition.
Like in Rithy Panh’s Cambodia, wandering souls haunt the living. It is tempting to look for scapegoats and make each other feel guilty: « Do not use the past against me », Thandeka’s father tells her. The touching relationship with Essop, the father of her daughter she can confide in, symbolizes an opening, a necessary breath of fresh air, despite their separation. Thandeka looks for ways out to rebuild her life, to bring an end to the mourning that monopolizes her mind and ossifies her life, to speak again when all others around her seem to have lost their voice. She is like Douda D, the enlightened madman, a recurrent character in African cinema who wonders where the wind starts to blow. Politics is only a distant caravan praising the path travelled. Many have settled down and don’t want any trouble. It is by going back to one’s cultural roots, via the ritual Me’Tau proposes, that Thandeka finds peace, a beautiful love letter from the living to the dead, to go on with life. Pictures, fruits and candles are on the altar of memory; memory can calm the monsters of the past.
Thandeka is remarkably played by Pamela Nomwete Marimbe, who powerfully performs her character, who gets you right there and contributes to the success of this deeply moving film. The quality of the image, of the editing and the rhythm, of the twilight lightings that cultivate the interiority and of the always spot-on soundtrack also help to make this important film an essential testimony that all politicians should keep in their film libraries!
Translated by Céline Dewaele///Article N° : 6813