Ekwa Msangi’s directorial debut begins where many other films might have ended – a family of three (Walter, Esther and Sylvia) reunite after having spent seventeen years apart. Drawing from a story she has witnessed, though not really been a part of in her own life, she draws a line against any possible romanticising of this reunion. What follows is a tremendously realistic depiction of three people attempting to make up for the seventeen-year lacuna in the respective lives of the others.
The story she presents is a simple one. There really isn’t anything that happens in the film that the synopsis does not give away. But living through the film itself is an experience. The tables turn on each character in several instances of the film. At one moment or the other, each becomes a hero and a villain in their own right. But it is only at the end of the film that you know them inside out – not because something big is revealed which solves everything – but because finally, some things are said. Again, it’s not a revelation – it’s that by the end of the film these characters reach a point (or Msangi takes them to a point) where they can finally access the fracture, the seventeen-year-long void in their lives, and turn it into language. And that is when we understand that none of them can be judged any longer. The point of investigation is how does Ekwa Msangi achieve this? I think the answer lies in the structure.
The film is divided into three parts that tells a similar story – from when this family of three reunites after seventeen years apart to the point when the film ends. The three parts are told from the perspective of the three main characters.
Right at the beginning we are presented with Walter’s narrative. So we understand there are at least two more narratives coming up later – that of his wife, Esther, and daughter, Sylvia. At the end of the first narrative we think we can close the file on Walter. We think, all right, that’s Walter summed up. As if he was one of three accused on the stand and now that we’ve heard him, it’s done with. Judged and sentenced. Who’s next? And that’s where Ekwa Msangi’s dramatic expertise has us all fooled. She’s not just giving us three perspectives to make her story clear or to organise her film better. She’s trying to say something about us and our lives through this structure, which to me appears to be this – we seep into the lives of others so effortlessly, and so dangerously, that the effect our actions and decisions have on others traverses paths that we cannot see. So it’s impossible to know how exactly people get to know us or we, them. And it is impossible to tell a story from a single watertight perspective because, in the words of Chimamanda Adichie, that’s the ‘danger of a single story’. As the film continues, we, in fact, understand more about Walter from the perspective of his wife and daughter than from his perspective alone. We thought he is only what he does and thinks, and were we wrong.
Walter, like most people, has made mistakes. However, like the responsible father and husband that he is, he tries hard to hide it because he knows what’s at stake. He isn’t confused. It’s just that the predicament of being estranged from his family for so long is not one anything in his life could have prepared him for.
In Walter’s perspective all we see is what he thinks he knows. But there are things in the story that even Walter does not know. In Sylvia’s perspective, of course, we come to know more facts about her but we also come to know that which Walter doesn’t. She waits in the hospital with her father and there’s a beautifully underplayed moment of bonding between father and daughter where she twirls the necklace given to her mother by Walter, which she now wears. In the next scene she sees the nurse wearing a similar necklace. Nothing is said in words but actress Jayme Lawson’s face is a book of expressions. She looks at the nurse’s necklace. The nurse looks at her necklace. Sylvia looks at Walter. That’s it.
Already in Sylvia’s perspective, Esther, her mother, begins to seep in. But in the latter’s perspective the writer takes us not exactly to the climax of the film but the heart of it certainly. At this point an enduring symbol in the lives of all three characters is finally revealed to us – one that presents with all its vitality and energy the possibility of bringing them back together. Yet, like everything else in this film, it isn’t underlined or confirmed. The two parallel actions that we see are Sylvia, for the first time, breaking out into dance and Esther and Walter talking about their past life together before the war when they say, “Words meant nothing. So, we danced.” I will refrain from gushing over Jayme Lawson, who really deserves another article all to herself, but I will say this. The moment the music Sylvia is dancing to fades and is replaced by a softer tune, the camera tilts up as Sylvia raises her hands in the air: it’s just sublime and I have often re-watched that moment; all of it is just breathtakingly beautiful and, in my mind, perfect. A lot of the credit again goes to the writer because we don’t ever really see Sylvia dance until right at the end when she not only dances but comes into her own for the first time. And both of these things – her becoming comfortable in her skin and the audience seeing her dance – happen at the same time, which elevates the significance of this scene beyond just being a beautifully choreographed moment.
It’s interesting that there is no last perspective. The ending is really the perspectives of all three, which have now become the perspective of one – because there aren’t any secrets anymore. It’s not the story of a protagonist or of three. There was a situation in the beginning of the film where some things needed to be said. We didn’t know what they were. It was for us to find out. That’s the journey Ekwa Msangi took us on – to see how things get said and when or if not, why not. It sounds kind of wonderful really – to declare that a story can be about a journey from things unsaid to a moment when some or most of those things get said – or remain unsaid. Toni Morrison probably said it best in her Nobel Prize lecture: “Word-work is sublime… because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” The measure of seventeen years of silence, once articulated, heals a family. The saying of what cannot be said but needs to be said does not always guarantee a happy ending but certainly does promise a return to some amount of wholeness. In speaking up against that silence and separation, three lives regain their measure, their value. And once it is said, the film ends.