Uneasy yet hopeful, Bantú Mama refreshingly tells us a story through Afro-European and Afro-Caribbean eyes. From start to finish, we have an excellent film that pulls you in and astounds you.
On the run from the police, Emma (Clarisse Albrecht) finds sanctuary with streetwise teens Shulo (Arturo Perez), Tina (Scarlet Reyes) and their little brother Cuki (Euris Javiel). As she becomes a surrogate ‘mama’ to the family, Emma finds common ground in the similarities and differences between their Caribbean and African cultures.
Ivan Herrera firmly leads you astray in the open portion of Bantú Mama; we see the relaxed life that Emma leads as she leaves off on what we assume is a well-deserved vacation to the Dominican Republic. There she relaxes, and while life there should be great for someone on such a holiday, we sense that not all is what it seems and that harrowingly rings true when she receives that phone call.
From that moment on, the film’s entire tone shifts rather marvellously as Emma tries to navigate this new world that she has encountered. One far removed from the gorgeous resort she was staying in days prior. Herrera and cinematographer Sebastian Cabrera Chelin wisely change the tone of the film from this point forward. Lingering birds-eye view shots come to the fore.
Yet, for telling a story in a rundown and dangerous neighbourhood, they manage to bring beauty to it simultaneously. It would be straightforward to film this part of the Dominican Republic in as stark a way as possible to project the chaos. Yet, the slow nature of the narrative coupled with presenting the city of Santa Domingo in such a way allows the audience to feel hope, that although it is this way right now. It doesn’t need to stay that way; the people in this part of the city are not all the same or as you would stereotypically expect. They want to live a better life but are held down by a government that will restrict rather than help rise. By giving us just a touch of this, we can see the area and thus the people in more natural light, and it is a great choice from Herrera.
Clarisse Albrecht carries Bantú Mama with her wonderful and impactful performance. She has a strong on-screen presence, so you immediately feel it when she makes the slightest of facial or body expressions. Albrecht takes responsibility for the role and the film in her stride with this portrayal of a woman who had to hit rock bottom to realise her purpose and true strengths. This is such a striking performance that you have to demand that we see more from the actress, it would be a crime if we didn’t.
We cannot forget the performances of the siblings who take her in either—each bringing something haunting to their roles. Scarlet Reyes as T.I.N.A. is the emotionally conflicted core of the family, and as she battles with doing the right thing, you feel it. She wants what is best for everyone, even if it means the greatest of sacrifices.
Arturo Perez’s $hulo has taken on so much responsibility, and you truly feel that weighs heavily on Perez as he tries to work out what to do with another mouth to feed. So, as he struggles, he also loses the hope his sister resolutely keeps for her family, giving us a clear picture of how fruitless some in the city view their future because of their government. However, for non-actors, they do surprise you with how effective their performances are, and hopefully, we will see more from them in the future.
Herrera and Albrecht have provided their audience with a film that asks all the right questions about identity and family, just for starters. The message that Bantú Mama is potent is that America, even Europe is not the be-all and end-all for immigrants or those whose families have immigrated. Sometimes finding your identity within your heritage is enough, and perhaps if you need to find happiness, it can be wiser to look a bit closer to home.
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