The Forgotten Kingdom – @ 2013 Sarasota Film Festival

The Forgotten Kingdom was screened at the 2013 Sarasota Film Festival on Thursday April 11th, and Saturday, April 13th. Set in Johannesburg South Africa, and then mostly in the country of Lesotho, this is a remarkable film. Directed by Andrew Mudge, this film won the SFF’s Audience Award as Best Narrative Feature. This means that by post-screening paper ballots handed in by those who just saw the screening, The Forgotten Kingdom got the best score of all those films in the Narrative Feature Film category. This was not a Jury Selection award given by industry people selected as the Jury.

Mudge told the audience at the Sarasota Opera House on Saturday night that he lived in Lesotho for two years while making the film.

The film is visually gorgeous, and behind the visuals we often hear some wonderful African Reggae, while in Jo’berg, or some more traditional African vocals while in Lesotho. But this film is so much more than pretty images and foot tapping music.

There’s a strong narrative story in this film. In fact there are two stories which merge and become one unified and dramatic tale.

Joseph also known as Ateng, lives in rough and tumble downtown Johannesburg. He lives in a high-rise. The streets are active, alive, noisy, dirty, and dangerous. From a helicopter view we also see that Jo’berg is a very big city. Joseph is recognized by a local merchant who knew Joseph’s father back in the day when they worked together as miners. This merchant makes a point of telling Joseph that he recognized Joseph not only because of the facial similarities but also by the anger in Joseph’s eyes which was so similar to that of his father. He tells Joseph that he had heard that Joseph’s father was sick.

Joseph and his friends drive out to a township, an area that is more accurately described as a shantytown. But Joseph is too late. His father has already passed on. He finds a document and discovers that his father had already arranged and prepaid for a funeral back in his homeland, Lesotho.

Joseph is obliged to take his father’s body back to a small town in Lesotho. This is where Joseph grew up – only to have been uprooted when his father decided to get Joseph out of Lesotho as a small boy and get him set up in Jo’berg. Only Joseph did not live with his father. He was shunted from home to home, from this uncle to that aunt. He felt abandoned by his own father. And he was. But as Joseph would find out as an adult, the reason wasn’t just abandonment. It was the disease, known in the area as the virus, and known in the rest of the world as AIDS.

Joseph returns to Lesotho for the burial. He stands out with his worn city clothes, a threadbare suit and tie, and a leather jacket. The villagers all wear locally crafted blankets. Joseph will meet a girl, Dineo, who he went to school with long ago. She’s now a teacher at the very same school.

What Joseph experiences is the strong pull of the traditional life he had left so long ago. The clothes, the customs, the attractive girl Dineo. But he resists and decides the country life isn’t what he wants.

But the country life isn’t all that you might have thought. There, deep in the country, they have to come to grips with this very same virus, the AIDS virus. Dineo’s sister has contracted the virus and has brought deep shame to her father. He keeps her in seclusion at his home, but he’d do anything rather than care for her.

And this brings up to the second story of The Forgotten Kingdom – old Africa and the new modern Africa collide over the AIDS disease right there in this small Lesotho town.

There’s your set up.

Mudge has woven the threads of the personal story a search to decide about one’s future while considering the past , and the larger story of the disease, and channeled through the character of Joseph.  Joseph is played wonderfully by Zenzo Ngqobe (above and below). His expressive face conveys anger, resentment, as well as a respect for his surroundings as well as those he encounters.

Dineo’s role is handled by Nozipho Nkelemba (below). She has a quiet beauty about her, and she also has a steely resolve. It is easy to see and understand her role and the actress has clearly understood well the character’s motivations.

But the key element to the film is when we have to decide what to make of the character called The Orphan Boy. He’s only about 10 or 11 years old and he’s got street smarts that seem far beyond what he should have. When he first meets Joseph, he offers to sell a yo-yo to Joseph for a decent amount of money, the South African Rand. Joseph declines and counter offers a cigarette instead.

The boy negotiates.

Boy: I am too young. I do not know how to smoke.
Joseph: As you grow older you will learn how.
Boy: How about trading your leather jacket for the yo-yo?
Joseph: You are too small for this jacket.
Boy: As I grow older, my arms will learn how to grow longer.

When Joseph as asks the boy about his home, his parents, and so forth, the boy states that he is an orphan and can go where he pleases.

Boy: I am the eyes of the dark clouds that follow you wherever you go. I am sent to guide and protect you.

Here we have both the most mystical aspect of the film and the charm of the film. Is the orphan boy, played by Lebohang Ntsane, who steals every scene he is in, really an orphan boy? Is he even real?

Might he be the avatar of Joseph’s life as a boy, or a dream, or even might he be an angel sent to watch over Joseph and help him solve his dilemma about what to do with his life.

The reality is that we don’t have answer about the Orphan Boy, and this is a delightful question for the viewer to ponder. Taken in combination with Joseph having to make some life altering decisions, and within the subtext of the collision of the old and traditional customs of the pastoral African countryside, versus the issues and problems of the new and modern Africa – we have a terrific film.

I’ll rate this one at four point zero out of five and I will recommend it.

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