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Mlenje: From animal tormentor to human beings’ tormentor

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Mofolo looks celebratory as a hunter, the pieces of his character stitched together through his martial bodily features and the conventional weapons of an unsophisticated hunter: A collection of a catapult, bow and arrow, as well as an improvised ramshackle shack he calls home.

Mlenje, epitomized by the hairy Mofolo— a character played by Dan Matoga— has fallen on bad times, economically and morally.

The storyline seems relentlessly practical. Just like in real Malawi, albinos are being hunted down in the movie, as if they are no longer human beings with human hearts and skin characteristically human. They have become mere statistics of the death toll in the social body called nation-state.

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It is hard to look at the depiction of characters in the movie, without wondering: Is this not typical of modern Malawi?

Tracing the story

The financial ceiling has dropped so low for Mofolo that, when his girl-friend Salome, a character played by Patricia Phiri, is selected to a constituent college of the University of Malawi, Mofolo, who loves his girlfriend more than his biological brother, falls into the trap of being recruited as an albino hunter.

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When he is approached by Member of Parliament (MP) Kananji— a character played by Wongani Munthali, a female MP who tells him to stop being a hunter of wild animals and become “a hunter of human beings”— he refuses to become a man-hunter. It is economic desperation that forces him to embrace that bloody, heartless path.

Once he agrees to the deal, Mofolo cultivates a primitive force of belief that human life does not matter, and that the organs of others can be turned into stepping stones to economic prosperity.

It turns out that he is merely courting disaster as he is arrested, convicted and sentenced to a custodial sentence. He is, then, haunted by a sense of regret and haunted by, yet, another reality after buying his freedom from prison: Salome abandons the promise she made under the cold rain of tears by opting for the warm heart of Lumbani, a boy she met in the university corridors.

Lumbani, a character played by Alfred Kaambakadzanja, seems the better option because he has never been convicted. But the lawyer’s heart turns out to be darker than Mofolo’s because he turns Salome into a punching bag.

By and by, the movie purposefully mirrors and expresses something that has already happened, although it makes it manifest in visual form in a context which is imaginary.

People with albinism emerge from the shelter of their houses to face a falling sun. Sometimes, the sun falls in the shelter of their own houses when they are attacked right there.

But the real culprits, like MP Kananji, are left scot-free — untouchable by the law and guilty conscious. Their money is the route to their freedom.

In a way, the movie is not a mere work of fiction but a route back to sanity. Back to the days when every citizen, regardless of the figment of the skin, lumbered about freely, time when everyone’s sense of patriotism outweighed everything else.

All these elements play themselves out in ‘Mlenje’, a movie written and directed by Innocent Bisika.

Released in September, ‘Mlenje’ is set in Makanjira Village [at 6 Miles], Traditional Authority Chikowi in Zomba District.

However, in the imaginary world of the screen writer, the action takes place in 1998 in Mkondo Village.

Somewhere in the movie, Mzuzu-based musician Afiloli-Afiloli makes a guest appearance by playing music with his guitar in one of the scenes.

Concoction of stories

Many sub-themes are at play in the movie, most notably xenophobia, which took centre stage in the Rainbow nation of South Africa not so long ago, prompting the Government of Malawi to intervene by sending buses to ferry stranded Malawians; child abuse, which is depicted in one scene where a step-father forces himself on a step-daughter; labour rights violations, depicted in two scenes where a lawyer, who is supposed to know better about the law than a layman, blatantly refuses to pay a housemaid for two months.

The lawyer does not only verbally refuse to do that; he physically manhandles the worker.

But the main dish, theme-wise, is the moral decay that has culminated in human beings turning against fellow human beings. The issue in question is that of albino man-hunting.

Blemish

However, like life itself, nothing flows smoothly without shortfalls in ‘Mlenje’.

For example, despite MP Kananji coercing Mofolo into her albino-hunting trade, and making reference to the fact that she has been engaged in the bloody business for a long time, earning quite a fortune, there is no evidence— in terms of bones— shown.

In fact, there is no character with the skin pigmentation of an albino in the movie. Instead of being a movie, it has become a story-telling venture unsupported by evidence.

So, Afiloli-Afiloli sings nothing about laments but happiness. No character, too, sings for their maimed and killed. There is no crescendo of emotion at all.

And Inobic Pictures director, Innocent Bisika, who wrote and directed the movie, seems to have a ready, lame excuse in the bag.

“It proved difficult for us to find an individual who could perform the character of an albino, hunted or otherwise. You know these are hard times for people with the condition of albinism. I actually tried to talk to one, but that one told me point-blank that he did not trust anybody, let alone me.

“Again, we were afraid that moving around with someone with the condition of albinism [in the course of shooting the movie] would have aroused suspicions among some community members, who would have suspected that we were up to something. Maybe people would have pounced on us,” Bisika says.

Then, there is the issue of transition.

In moving from one scene and another, clouds [those clouds which let sunlight through] are often used as a mark of transition— which is funny, anyway. Funny in the sense that clouds can simply not be used for convenience sake because they mean so many things to different people.

For example, according to www.hinduwebsite.com, the archetypical meaning, cultural significance and symbolism of cloud [megham] in Hindu literature is that of a world “that is detached and different from ours”.

The www.atlantic.com , which describes clouds as the “most useful metaphor of all time”, indicates that “in plays, poems, songs, and novels, clouds stand in for everything from bad philosophy to the many incarnations of a soul”.

www.symbolism.org, in analysing ‘Symbolism of place: The place of phenomena’, indicates that in discussing clouds it is useful to make distinctions between major types of cloud formation.

“There are patchy clouds which let sunlight through in places and pass slowly overheard like chunks of cotton or sheep. To the Greeks, these clouds symbolised the flocks of sheep of Apollo. There are thick clouds which let little sunlight through. There are tall clouds which rise high into the stratosphere like great celestial castles punctuated only by rivers of wind from the jet-stream or airplanes. There are low-lying clouds [almost fog] which pull the ‘ceiling’ of the sky down close to earth.

“The effect of the non-patchy type of clouds is blockage of sunlight and lowering of the sky. Tall clouds, though, suggest the height of the sky and a corresponding majesty. Clouds also have movement. They can be still or they can be rushing about overhead like laundry thrashing about in a washing machine. Both the silence or the movement symbolise movement within the Gods or the heavens.”

The site then cites Eliphas Levi who, in ‘Les Mysteres de la Kabbale’, notes that there are two principal aspects of cloud-symbolism.

“On the one hand, clouds are related to the symbolism of the mist, signifying the intermediate world between the formal and the non-formal. On the other hand, clouds are associated with the ‘Upper Waters’— the realm of the antique Neptune.

“The former aspect of the cloud is symbolic of forms as phenomena and appearance, always in a state of metamorphosis, which obscure the immutable quality of higher truth,” it says, further indicating that in Christian symbolism clouds represent the unseen God, “veiling the sky and also veiling God, as with the cloud on Mount Sinai and the pillar of cloud”.

Additionally, Ramiro de Pinedo observes, in ‘El Simbolisimo en la escultura medieval espanola’ that the cloud is sometimes synonymous with the prophet, since prophecies are an occult source of fertilization, celestial in origin.

Gaston Bachelard, in L’Air et les Songes, indicates that clouds represent symbolic messengers, and that the fertility aspect of the cloud is most apparent in Chinese symbolism with the figure of the Dragon of Clouds.

“Clouds in Chinese symbolism can mean the blessing of rain; good works, visible breath or the life-force,” www.symbolism .org indicates.

Whatever the case, to Bisika and his technical team, clouds are nothing but a curtain between one scene and another.

Apart from the clouds, the movie also leaves the viewer in suspense as Mofolo, after being released from prison, does not actually meet Salome in the final scene.

In the scene in question, Mofolo learns that Salome broke her vow to marry no one but Mofolo and Mofolo, prompted by the force of betrayal feelings, sets out for his former love’s house.

He finds the housemaid, who gets into the house to inform Salome that there is a visitor outside. Salome sets out for the door, where Mofolo stands lost in thoughts and the scene ends before they actually meet.

A rather disinteresting end to a movie that should have been replete with suspense and action. And it is strange that this is only Part 1. A sequel!

First steps

In the end, Inobic Pictures, which produced the movie in collaboration with Rhino Arts Theatre, may be a name new on the block, but the theme it has evoked is old and, therefore, recurrent.

Bisika says the movie is a no-budget product, hence people should not read too much into its technical flaws.

“We had limited financial muscle and we could, therefore, not afford to hire experts. I had an idea and I wanted to perfect that idea by handling everything myself.

“In fact, we shot the movie within one month, did the editing and stuff in one month and released it in September. Everything took place within six months. No one, except very few, was paid and, if anything, we only spent money on expenses such as generator use, food, drinks,” Bisika indicates.

Indeed, the protagonist, Matoga observes that the storyline had to be memorized within a few weeks.

“I actually memorized everything within a month, and I am satisfied that I was able to get everything right,” Matoga says.

The cast includes Matoga; Patricia Phiri, who plays the character of Salome; Alfred Kaambakadzanja, who plays the character of Lumbani; Referent Charley, playing the role of Sinto; Lusekero Kishombe, playing the role of Chitosi; Wongani Munthali, who plays the character of MP Kananji; Richard Ngwira, who acts as Phazi.

The others are Thoko Bwanali, who plays the character of Sergeant Chikhosi; Peter Kamanga, fulfilling the role of Sonjole; Gift Kasenda, the warder; Austin Chauluka, playing the role of Chief Mkondo, among others.

In the end, storylines such as these are an extension to behaviour change advocacy, and seek not to alienate the ‘human hunters’ but to achieve a compromise and modify excessive greed fuelling attacks on albinos.

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