(2014; writer/director: Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera; language: English)
Malawi is ranked among the world’s least developed countries, and nurturing a local film industry doesn’t seem to have been a priority. Apart from Charles Shemu Joyah’s The Last Fishing Boat and Seasons of a Life, there aren’t a whole lot of Malawian feature films out there. I’d like to check out Joyah’s films too, but when I saw B’ella listed in the local film festival line-up, I leapt at the chance – especially as director Nkhonjera was holding a Q&A afterward. Nkhonjera spoke positively about a growing interest in film-making in Malawi (although funding is still an issue), so hopefully more films will come!
Perhaps because Malawian feature films are such a rarity, B’ella is a film that tries to do everything. The blurb on the film’s website states that the film “covers issues such first love, friendships, school bullying, peer pressure, self-confidence, the importance of education, gradual loss of traditional values, teacher-student relationship, stigma connected to HIV and more,” and they’re not exaggerating. B’ella (Vinjeru Kamanga) is a 17-year old Malawian girl with a lot on her plate. Her best friend is sick with AIDS after selling sex to provide for her family, the school bitch Kalilole (Chimwemwe Mkwezalamba) is flirting with the guy she likes, her parents have high expectations of her as their eldest daughter, her maths teacher (Tony Khoza) keeps telling her she needs extra lessons, and she’s also just trying to find her place in the world as the adult she is on the brink of becoming. But B’ella’s strength and leadership are really allowed to shine when said maths teacher gropes her and proposes marriage, and B’ella leads the charge to make sure this kind of exploitation will no longer be tolerated. Throw in the build-up to an epic high school music concert (that never eventuates), the forging of a friendship with a chastised Kalilole, death in the family, and even a rumination on the acceptability of the word mzungu, and you’ve got… well, you’ve got the film B’ella.
It’s definitely a roller coaster of a film. The film’s NGO-sponsors claim they wanted to show “that a Malawian girl is just like any other girl in the universe, growing up and looking for her identity in the jungle of every day life”. While B’ella’s jungle might be more intense than that of the average teen, maneuvering through the emotional turbulence of adolescence is something most can probably identify with. From this perspective, even the film’s abrupt tonal shifts make more sense – who else but a teen can go from mourning the death of a loved one to taking a carefree leap off a waterfall with their new best friend/former enemy? But I do feel like the film might have been more powerful had it not attempted to cram in so many issues, allowing the impact of presumably life-changing events to be explored in greater depth. As it is the film often strayed over into preachiness, with its catalogue of teen issues and the just slightly too perfect B’ella clearly set up as a role model: the perfect friend, the perfect daughter, the perfect love interest, the perfect mediator, the perfect sister and the perfect advocate. (This perhaps, is a consequence of the film being sponsored by an NGO – boNGO Worldwide – who list it under their ‘Youth and Adult Education / Awareness Raising Films’ section). In fact it is a major credit to Kamanga’s performance that the superwoman B’ella is anything other than insufferable. Instead, Kamanga gives B’ella an aura of groundedness and genuine warmth.
If B’ella was too much of a saint, her foil Kalilole was too much the stereotypical Alpha Bitch. Sure, the character shows how class differences can manifest even in (according to some definitions) the poorest places, but her story did nothing to vary the well-worn narrative of redemption through the humble protagonist’s innate goodness. (And why oh why are women’s emotional transformations so often signified by a change in hairstyle? In this case, a reformed Kalilole removes her weave and adopts a shorter style with her natural hair, like B’ella). And of course she and B’ella like the same guy, who is in the end put off by Kalilole’s shallowness and drawn to the obviously perfect B’ella. However, even if the Mean Girls aspects of the film were a bit uninspired, B’ella’s crammed running time offered plenty more in the drama department.
As an educational film clearly intending to offer young Malawians a female role model, it is perhaps unsurprising that it includes such a broad assortment of calamities. Malawi is burdened by a low average life expectancy, HIV/AIDS, and child-headed households, and has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world (contributing in turn to the country’s devastatingly high maternal mortality rate). If the film offers young people tools to cope with the issues, or perhaps even combat them, then it would assuredly be a force for good. As an international viewer, I was less captivated by the helter skelter ride through Malawi’s development issues than I was by the small moments where the film was allowed to breathe and dwell on more banal interactions between its cast. The director mentioned at the Q&A, for example, that (no) hugging between friends is a taboo that the film challenges. Is this reflective of a change in Malawian culture around expressing intimacy? I also appreciated the moments when the action strayed over to a group of boys from B’ella’s neighbourhood, who frankly and sympathetically helped each other explore norms of masculinity and sexual (dis)interest – definitely not something one normally finds in your average American teen flick. I liked the space made for boys too to question the roles provided for them, in a film that was otherwise so determinedly focussed on inciting girl power that it risked becoming a slogan (in the style of a certain shoe company that shall remain nameless).
Although eventful, and helped along by a confident and vibrant score by local artist Muhanya, the film is somewhat let down by its production values and a lack of polish. It is predominantly the performances of Kamanga and Mkwezalamba that carry the film, providing it with a luster and professionalism that is rather lacking from some of the supporting cast, many of whom were sourced from a local high school. Khoza – a radio personality – also does an excellent job of his film debut in the role of the maths teacher, endowing him with the perfect mixture of banal self-righteousness and sleaze. But complaining about poor production values hardly feels appropriate for the product of a vastly under-resourced film industry, and I imagine that director Nkhonjera has every right to proud of what he managed to achieve with the presumably low budget he had to work with.
In fact, hearing him talk at the Q&A made all to clear the challenges involved in the production process, and gave answer to some of the niggles I’d had watching the film. For instance, the school concert finale that never eventuated turned out to have been beset by filming difficulties. I was also confused by the European woman who wandered through the film at several points, contributing nothing but a distracting white presence, as though to remind the viewer that no African story is complete without a white filter – be it a coloniser or an aid worker. Finding out that she is the director of the NGO sponsoring the film made her on-screen involvement more understandable, if not narratively excusable. Overall, I got the impression that Nkhonjera was working with what he had, which wasn’t a lot, and was trying to make a film for a range of audiences and purposes. That the film even made sense is an achievement, and the fact that it is engaging, warm and at times genuinely stirring is a testament to the skill and energy of its director and leads.
Indeed, I think that the film’s unevenness can be ascribed more to the clash of purposes than any lack of talent or production values. It is at once a creative endeavour to show Malawi to Malawians, an educational film designed to fit an NGO’s purposes, and also a film directed at international audiences. With that brief, it could hardly be anything but choppy. Especially as the picture of Malawi intended for international audiences was somewhat at odds with the film’s educational focus on Malawi’s hardships. The film’s sponsors state “we want to break the cliché of showing Malawi, and other African countries, as poverty-stricken places, but show the reality – Malawi being a beautiful place in which people have difficulties and joys just like anywhere else in the world.” It is difficult to both break the stereotype of the impoverished sub-Saharan African nation and delve into the country’s poverty-related issues, but B’ella certainly gives it its best shot. And the enthusiastic showing off of the upsides of Malawian life is definitely another of the film’s successes. Shot (and set) in semi-rural Chazunda, a community on the outskirts of Malawi’s commercial city Blantyre, the film glories in Malawi’s dusty reddish earth, cloud-muted rolling hills, green forests and rocky waterfalls. Viewers are treated to colourful markets, and both traditional and modern performing arts. I’m not sure if all this balances out the dramatic deaths and sexual abuse that much of the film focusses on, but it certainly reveals a side of sub-Saharan Africa that rarely makes it onto Western screens; people going about their lives with purpose, vigour, enjoyment, ambition, and all the rest of the activities and emotions that can be said to characterise humans
In the end, the sense of Malawi that B’ella left me with was of people doing their thing, enjoying the good parts and doing their best with the bad parts. And while the film was uneven in pretty much every way a film can be uneven, I’m going to apply that philosophy to my viewing of the film: enjoy the good parts, and make the best of the rest. With the enthusiasm and emerging talent highlighted in B’ella, I certainly hope the Malawian film industry continues to bloom.