Review: ‘Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.,’ starring Thato Khobotle, Mercy Koetle, Napo Kalebe, Molibeli Mokake, Disko Monaheng, Chris Mosalemane and Sivan Ben Yishai

November 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Thato Khobotle in “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” (Photo courtesy of Dekanalog)

“Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.”

Directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed African country, the docudrama film “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” features an all-African group of representing the poor and working-class.

Culture Clash: An unnamed African woman, who currently lives in Berlin, gives a stream of consciousness narrative about her love/hate relationship with her biological mother and Mother Africa.

Culture Audience: “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies that take an abstract approach to issues of colonization and immigration.

Napo Kalebe in “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” (Photo courtesy of Dekanalog)

Contemporary movies about Africa are usually very predictable in their subject matter: They’re usually about poverty, war and/or refugees. “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You., ” filmed entirely in black and white, takes the unorthodox approach of telling an abstract cinema story of an African expatriate who has a love/hate relationship with Africa. Written, directed band produced by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, the movie has been described as a documentary. However, it’s more like a docudrama, since there are actors who perform scenes among non-actors who are going about their everyday lives.

In addition, the unnamed woman giving the movie’s voiceover narration at times seems to be reading from a manifesto and other times seems to be rambling off the top of her head. (Sivan Ben Yishai is the actress who does the voiceover narration.) All the words in the movie are scripted, of course. They were written by Mosese, who makes a very unique feature-film debut with “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.”

No one is identified by name in this movie. However, these are the on-screen cast members who are listed in the movie’s end credits: Thato Khobotle, Mercy Koetle, Napo Kalebe, Molibeli Mokake, Pheku Lisema, Disko Monaheng, Chris Mosalemane and Teboho Mochao. And although the movie does not name the African country where the unseen narrator is originally from, the movie’s production notes lists Lesotho as the African nation where the movie was filmed. Some production also occurred in Qatar.

There’s only one consistent character seen on screen throughout the entire movie. She is a young woman (played by Khobotle), who is carrying a large wooden crucifix (just like Jeses Christ) in various locations. She’s also dressed in simple robe-like garb, much like how Jesus is depicted in artwork of Jesus carrying the cross on the way to being crucified. The woman in this movie doesn’t have a crown of thorns, but her physical exertion through sweat gets more emphasis as time goes on in the movie, until it reaches a point where there’s a close-up of her skin glistening with sweat.

As this cross-bearing woman walks through different places, such as a farm field and a crowded outdoor marketplace (the two main recurring locations in the movie), various “slice of life” scenarios play out on screen. In the field, a farmer holds his sheep. Later, a herd of sheep is brought to the marketplace, as potential buyers rub the sheep’s coats to feel the quality of the wool. And there’s another scene that shows the stark reality of sheep being used for meat, as an unidentified man is seen in slow-motion carrying a skinned, headless sheep through the marketplace.

Vendors in the marketplace shout out the prices of the merchandise: “10 rand clothes! 5 rand clothes!” People mill about in the marketplace and in a car-filled parking lot. Some of the people on the street gather to watch a man give a passionate speech on a platform, as he holds up a book that might or might be a religious book. Other people dance to music that’s not heard in the movie.

One person who stands out in the marketplace is an androgynous man, a non-binary person or a transgender woman (played by Kalebe), who is wearing a white tank top, denim shorts and angel wings. People give stares indicating that they’re shocked or curious, but this visually striking person gives a “not bothered” smile while striding confidently through the marketplace. Elsewhere, a mother unravels yarn that is completely wrapped around the head of her son who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Don’t expect any of the people shown in the movie to have their stories told.

The only story being told is that of the mysterious, unseen and unnamed narrator. Her voice is heard in an audio recording that has a slight echo, as if the recording could’ve been made yesterday or years ago. What she reads sometimes sounds like she spent a lot of time thinking about what she wanted to say, while other times she goes on a rant that seems more spontaneous. She talks about a letter she wrote to her mother: “By the time you read it, I will already have left you.”

Viewers will never know this narrator’s full story, but they will find out quickly that she has mixed feelings not only for her biological mother but also for Mother Africa, her homeland. As she recalls memories both good and bad of her mother, she goes through a range of emotions: joy, wistfulness, anger, sadness, confusion, hope. Sometimes she’s arrogant, sometimes she’s humble. Sometimes she’s strong, sometimes she’s vulnerable. And she keeps repeating to her mother that this is the last film and the last letter where she will talk about this mother.

Toward the end of the film, she reveals that she’s currently living a completely different life in Berlin, where she has made new friends (all white people, she says) who have accepted her, but still think that she’s “different.” She says with some condescension that the only reminders of Africa that she sees in her new life in Germany is when she stands in a Berlin airport line for people with non-European passports, or when she sees drug dealers who are black, or when she sees black people in menial service jobs.

Issues of race and colonization are brought up throughout the movie, because the narrator is very bitter about how much of African culture was stolen, erased or disrespected because of colonization. Early on in the movie, she hypothetically asks if her mother would wave a napkin to say goodbye to her, just like it’s done in European movies. “We are better in our goodbyes, I guess, than they are.”

Her most resentful remarks are when she describes how her mother underwent a religious conversion and changed into someone she didn’t know or like very much. “You used to listen to Michael Jackson,” she says. “You would whistle every tune, every song from ‘Thriller.’ You were the best.”

She adds in an infuriated manner: “Then religion came. Every novel, every book in the house, was replaced by holy men. The dresses became longer and longer. Your beautiful hair became too sacred for the world to see. You stopped looking into my eyes … The laughter, it all changed … You changed. You started to talk differently … You became cold and distant.”

She also describes her mother becoming fixated on the “end times.” Although the transformation of this mother could easily sound like the religious conversion of one person, as time goes on in the movie, it becomes more obvious that the narrator is upset about how Africa has changed because of religions forced on Africans by colonizers. The movie also has an audio clip (it’s unknown if it’s real or scripted) of a man with a European accent speaking to a boatful of refugees. “Who speaks English? How many people are in the boat?”

The narrator’s says to her mother in a voice filled with rage: “I’m ashamed of you! Your shame is yours to keep and mine to bear. I’d rather be in an immigrant in a foreign land than suffocating in your womb!.” Later, she says, “I saw you through the white man’s eyes. You deserve your war.”

She also repeats, “I love you” and “I hate you” several times when addressing her mother. And she also expresses remorse for an act of violence that she committed when she was 8 or 9 years old, when she used a knife on another child of about the same age. “I know I wasn’t a perfect child. All I needed was you, mother,” she says with sadness and regret.

Viewers who prefer formulaic narratives and plots in movies might have a hard time digesting “Mother, I’m Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You,” even though the movie’s total running time is only 76 minutes. This is a movie that’s intended to take meaningful personal messages and blend them with imagery resembling a fever dream. The narration can at times be poetically articulate or frustratingly disjointed. But the movie’s most powerful statement is saved for the very end. It’s an impactful commentary on how personal history can shape someone’s identity, no matter how someone might want to forget, ignore or erase it.

Dekanalog released “Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You.” in select U.S. cinemas on November 12, 2021.

Review: ‘499,’ starring Eduardo San Juan Breña

September 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eduardo San Juan Breña in “499” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/AMC/Cinema Guild)


Directed by Rodrigo Reyes

Spanish and Nahuatl with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico, the docudrama “499” features an all-Latino cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A ghostly Spanish conquistador from the 1500s experiences culture shock when he finds himself in Mexico in the early 2020s. 

Culture Audience: “499” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that blend scripted content and non-fiction content to offer a social commentary on the effects of colonialism.

Eduardo San Juan Breña (third from right) with Honduran migrants in “499” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/AMC/Cinema Guild)

The docudrama “499” offers a bold satirical look at what would happen if a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s suddenly had to live in modern-day Mexico. The movie cleverly shows actor Eduardo San Juan Breña (also known as Eduardo San Juan) in the role of a ghostly, time-traveling conquistador who interacts with non-actors in Mexico. Various people, including this mysterious conquistador, provide voiceover narration. Needless to say, he can’t quite get over the shock that Spain is still not in control of Mexico.

This film won’t be appealing to everyone. And it could’ve easily veered into the type of “the joke’s on you” tone that’s seen in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” movies. However, “499” puts a unique spin on a story of colonialism and how colonialism’s effects still linger today.

The movie opens with a brief caption giving a history lesson for viewers who are unfamiliar with Spain’s takeover of the Aztec Empire in the land that is now known as Mexico. The caption reads: “In 1521, [Spanish conquistador Hernán] Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire. With a few hundred soldiers and thousands of native allies, he marched from the coast of Veracruz to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.”

In “499,” it’s almost 500 years later after 1521. And the time-traveling, unnamed conquistador who becomes shipwrecked in Mexico is supposed to be some kind of ghost, but he can be seen by people. This conquistador was a soldier in Cortés’ army, and he has no idea how he ended up in modern-day Mexico. Get used to seeing several scenes where he reacts with shock to things such as cars, telephones and modern clothing.

The conquistador’s journey in the movie follows the same path that Cortés took in his invasion of the Aztec Nation. On the coast of Mexico, the conquistador washes up on the beach and is mystified by the sight of plastic cup and a motorcycle. He gets stared at by people on the beach who have no idea why this person is dressed as a conquistador.

The conquistador sees a water gourd, grabs it, and drinks it, as if he’s been thirsty for hours. In a daze and still trying tor figure out what happened and where he is, he then wanders into an elementary school. He collapses from exhaustion and confusion.

He’s next seen by himself outdoors, wondering to himself if he’s dead or in purgatory. Eventually, he meets a young man who says that the corrupt Mexican government abducted and killed the young man’s father for being an activist and a journalist. The father’s body parts were found in a bag.

As a parting gift, the son with this tragic story gives the conquistador a blank journal. The conquistador says in a voiceover, “Cortés would cry with rage to see the savages in charge again … I discovered they were the children of the devil.”

In other words, this isn’t going to be a cute and cuddly time-traveling story about a conquistador who overcomes his racial prejudice and adapts quickly to his new environment. He literally has an “old school” mentality that Spaniards are superior to the indigenous people of this area.

In the city of Veracruz, the conquistador encounters more evidence that Mexico has an epidemic of missing and murdered people. He meets a mother whose 24-year-old son is missing. And he walks through a protest where people are angry that the government isn’t doing enough to find the men who’ve gone missing in the area. In Veracruz, he also goes to a strip club, and his reaction is what you might expect it to be.

In the Sierra, he’s captured by men for trespassing in their wooded area, but he’s released to continue his journey. He also marvels at some pole acrobats. It’s a scene that makes him look like an awestruck tourist. The movie has touches of this type of comedy, but “499” doesn’t let people forget that this is a conquistador who is very unhappy at that the Spaniards are no longer in charge of the land that he and other Spanish soldiers invaded with Cortés.

In the Highlands, the conquistador ends up on the street with some young male Honduran migrants who are looking for work. One man tells the story of how he had to leave home because he was getting gang threats. The migrants also talk about the dangers of crossing the border into Mexico, such as people extorting bribes and train hopping that could lead to injuries or death.

The conquistador is not very pleased to be in the company of these poverty-stricken and desperate men. But this stranger doesn’t know how else he can find work to support himself. It’s not as if there are employment ads looking for a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s.

The conquistador mutters to himself about the Honduran migrants: “These miserable migrants chase after the promise of glory. They remind me of us.” It’s the first indication that this displaced conquistador begins to see that a Spanish soldier in Cortés’ army might have something in common with these Honduran migrants: being at the mercy of a system where only an elite group of people get most of the power, money and glory.

What works so well about “499” is that it shows how this unnamed conquistador gradually begins to understand the damage that was inflicted in the name of colonialism. And even when a country such as Mexico is independent from a colonial country, he learns that brutality and corruption are timeless plagues on any society. The movie intends to make viewers think about how much humanity has really progressed (or not) when certain atrocities still exist today.

In Paso de Cortés, the conquistador goes on a car ride with a military soldier-turned-drug runner, who hides his identity with face coverings. In Tenochtitlan, he meets another person grieving over a loved one: a mother named Lorena Gutiérrez, whose 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered, mostlikely by criminals involved with drug deal and/or sex trafficking.

The conquistador doesn’t talk much, but “499” is able to convey a detailed story without a lot of dialogue. His interactions with the non-actors in the movie might look too staged at time, which is expected since they knew they were being filmed for a movie. However, their conversations don’t look scripted. Viewers will get the impression that the people who had conversations with the “conquistador” were told about the concept of the film and were asked to tell their unscripted stories on camera.

Non-actors listed in the movie credits are Jorge Sánchez, Martha González and Sixto Cabrera, but it isn’t made clear who they are in the movie. San Juan Breña, who makes his feature-film debut in “499,” fully commits to his role, by moving and reacting as if he’s really from a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s. At times, it looks like he’s doing a comedy sketch, but he never strays too far from the movie’s generally serious tone.

Pablo Mondragón’s musical score for “499” perfectly captures the mood for each scene. And “499” director Reyes brings the right amount of light-hearted flair so that the movie’s tone doesn’t get too dark. The unnamed conquistador isn’t supposed to be a hero or a villain but someone who is a product of a certain environment at a particular point in time.

The end of the movie shows what happened to the conquistador. It’s enough to say that he doesn’t have a time travel machine that will take him back to the 1500s. How the movie concludes is a commentary on what can happen when people open their minds up to different perspectives.

Cinema Guild released “499” in New York City on August 20, 2021. The movie’s release expanded to Los Angeles on August 27, 2021, and San Francisco on September 3, 2021, with more U.S. cities in subsequent weeks.

Review: ‘The Infiltrators,’ starring Maynor Alvarado, Manuel Uriza, Chelsea Rendon, Dino Nicandros, Marco Saavedra, Viridiana Martinez and Mohammad Abdollahi

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Manuel Uriza and Maynor Alvarado (both pictured leaning forward, at far left) in “The Infiltrators” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“The Infiltrators”

Directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra

Partially in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Broward County, Florida, the docudrama “The Infiltrators”—about a group of young Dreamer activists who want undocumented immigrants to be set free at a detention center—has a cast that is predominantly Latino, with some representation of white people, African Americans and Asians.

Culture Clash: The activists, who are part of group called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, have an underground network to free undocumented immigrants from a U.S. detention center in Broward County, and they have conflicts with immigration officials to achieve their goals.

Culture Audience: “The Infiltrators” will appeal mostly to people who are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants and Dreamers, but the movie’s “split personality” of being a documentary and a scripted drama ends up being a distraction to the overall message.

Chelsea Rendon and Dino Nicandros in “The Infiltrators” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

At what point does a movie that tries to be a documentary end up being a docudrama? When the scripted re-enactments with actors take up most of the screen time instead of actual interviews with the documentary subjects. It’s why the “The Infiltrators” (directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra), although well-intentioned, has an uneven tone that dilutes and muddles what could have been a more impactful film if it let the real people involved tell most of the story, instead of actors.

About 65% of the screen time in “The Infiltrators” consists of scripted re-enactments of what are said to be true events. About 25% of the movie consists of archival footage, while the remaining 10% consists of interviews with the actual people who went through the experiences that are depicted by actors in the movie. It would be inaccurate to call this movie a “documentary,” because the movie is really a docudrama or a scripted dramatic movie with some documentary elements. “The Infiltrators” co-director Rivera wrote the movie’s screenplay with Aldo Velasco.

“The Infiltrators,” which takes place mostly in 2012, tells the story of how members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) formed an underground network to get undocumented immigrants (or illegal aliens, depending on your viewpoint) released from Broward Detention Center in Florida. NIYA consists primarily of Dreamers: people who came to the U.S. as children of undocumented immigrants.

Three of the NIYA members, who were in their early 20s at the time, get the spotlight in “The Infiltrators”—group leader Marco Saavedra, Viridiana “Viri” Martinez and Mohammad Abdollahi. Saaverda and Martinez are of Mexican descent, while Abdollahi is of Iranian descent. Because they were underage when they immigrated to the U.S., they are in a gray area of not being legally responsible for breaking immigration laws themselves, since they were brought into the U.S. by adults.

However, Dreamers are still not eligible to become legal U.S. citizens. There are very divisive and heated debates on what should be done about undocumented immigrants who are working, productive members of society, and what should be done about Dreamers who want to work or go to college after they turn 18. Should they be deported or should they be given a path to citizenship?

“The Infiltrators” undoubtedly takes the side of the immigrants getting a path to legal citizenship, since NIYA’s goal is to prevent deportations of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are productive members of society. In order to get immigrants at detention centers released, NIYA members who are Dreamers got themselves deliberately put into the detention center to contact certain immigrants whose families enlisted the help of NIYA.

While at the detention center, NIYA got the targeted immigrants to sign privacy waiver forms that allowed NIYA members on the outside to get petitions signed on the behalf of the detained immigrants. The movie shows that the waiver forms could be smuggled out by detention-center people who had access to the visitor area (such as people on cleaning duty), and then the waiver forms could be given to pre-planned visitors. Because the detention centers are overcrowded, someone can be released without being deported, if enough political pressure is put on people in the U.S. Congress or other influential politicians who represent the region where the detainee usually lives.

“The Infiltrators” shows scripted re-enactments of experiences that Saaverda (played by Maynor Alvarado) and Martinez (played by Chelsea Rendon) had in deliberately getting themselves locked up in Broward Detention Center. Saaverda and Martinez (at separate times) just walked up to a local U.S. Border Patrol Office, revealed their immigration status by playing dumb, and were then taken to the detention center. Meanwhile, the movie (through some archival footage, but mostly through re-enactments) shows that Abdollahi spearheaded the NIYA efforts outside the detention center to get petitions signed and garner media attention for their detention cases. In the movie, the Abdollahi character’s name is changed to Radam Berlinger, and he is portrayed by actor Dino Nicandros.

In “The Infiltrators,” the detained undocumented immigrants who get help from NIYA include Claudio Roja (played by Manuel Uriza), a middle-aged married father who was detained after he reneged on his promise to voluntarily go back to Mexico. Emiliano, Claudio’s oldest son (played by Orlando Peña), also received NIYA assistance when he was in the detention center for three months. Another immigrant named Beni (played by Juan Gabriel Pareja) also gets help from NIYA.

Viewers would be mistaken to think that “The Infiltrators” will show a lot of abuse by detention workers. No one gets beat up or called racist names. The worst “abuse” shown in the movie is when a guard gets angry at a detainee for loitering while on janitor duty. The guard yells at the detainee to keep mopping the floor, and then angrily kicks the detainee’s mop bucket away. The movie is obviously a very toned-down version of how people are treated in facilities such as this one.

And the detention center looks like an unrealistic movie version of a detention center, considering the horrific conditions of real immigration detention centers, which are basically jails under a different name. And the movie unrealistically avoids showing any fighting or unsanitary conditions in the detention center. It’s hard to believe that an overcrowded, incarcerated population would be this peaceful and clean. It’s one of the reasons why the dramatized, scripted parts of the movie don’t look very authentic and does a disservice by not showing people the grim and disturbing realities of what really go on in these detention centers.

The main “detention tension” shown in the movie is when Marco and Claudio get paranoid that the detention center’s “frogs” (the word used for detainees who snitch to the guards) will find out about their plans. And toward the end of the film, Marco convinces a group of detainees to join him in a protest by fasting. But aside from Claudio showing some signs of weight loss, the movie glosses over the impact of fasting, and it’s treated in a way that’s almost glib. One of the detainees quips that the reason why he immediately agrees to fasting is because the food in the detention center isn’t very good anyway.

The movie also does an inadequate job at addressing how racism plays a role in how people are treated in the immigration system. A lot of viewers probably won’t notice that there are no white people shown as detainees in the detention center. The racial disparity is not mentioned at all in the film. It’s necessary to point it out to make people aware that white undocumented immigrants (and a lot of them do exist, contrary to what’s shown in the media) are not rounded up and put in detention centers to the same degree that people of color are targeted for this type punishment.

The majority of the detainees in this detention center are Latino, while the rest are African or Asian. Think of how many white immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented or have expired visas, but they’re usually not yanked out of their homes or jobs and taken to detention centers. And considering that the majority of immigration officials are white, it’s no wonder that immigration is a hot-button racial issue in the United States.

And there’s another level of racial preference that’s glossed over in the film: As depicted in the movie, NIYA members give priority help to Latinos, since most of the NIYA members are also Latino. There’s a scripted scene that shows Martinez somewhat befriending an African immigrant named Neema Mukun (played by Délé Ogundiran), who shares a cell-room with her, and the African woman shows interest in having the NIYA help her. But in the end, the only people in the movie who get freed with NIYA’s help are people who “remind them of their families” (as the actress portraying Martinez says in the scripted portion of the movie)—in other words, people who are Latino.

That racial preference might also be a function of how racially segregated detention centers can be, but the movie could have been a lot more honest about this racial preference instead of using an African woman as a token character.  If the NIYA made equal efforts to help detainees of non-Latino races, it’s not shown in “The Infiltrators,” which is another reason why the movie’s over-reliance on scripted re-enactments ends up short-changing what could have been more of a well-rounded picture.

When the movie cuts to scenes of the real people (not the actors) in archival footage or in interviews, it’s a reminder of how much better the movie would have been if the majority of the scenes were in documentary format. That’s because the real people tell the story in much more compelling ways. They actually lived these experiences and can tell eyewitness  details that would be more impactful, as opposed to a second-hand interpretation of events.

If the interviewees were dull or awkward on camera, then it would be understandable for the filmmakers to rely so heavily on re-enactments. But Saavedra, Martinez and Abdollahi are not only charismatic, they also have a great sense of humor. And the former detainees who got assistance (such as the real Claudio and Emiliano Rojas) have a lived-through trauma in their eyes and demeanor, which can’t be faked by actors. The actors in this movie do an adequate job, but they’re not as memorable as the real people.

The NIYA “infiltrators” ended up getting a lot of media attention, which kind of defeats the purpose of keeping things “underground” in order to operate without detection from authorities. Because the identities of the “infiltrators” were exposed in the media, they had to stop what they were doing because immigration officials now know about it. And since their tactics have been revealed to the public, it would be much harder for other people to try the same methods.

The problem with putting all of this in a dramatic, scripted format while trying to pass this movie off as a nonfiction is that the viewers don’t know how much of the script was exaggerated or fabricated for dramatic purposes. Toward the end of the movie, it flashes forward to Election Day in 2016, to show documentary footage of the real Saavedra (not the actor) watching on TV, to his dismay, the impending results of the U.S. presidential election. The film ends very abruptly on another scene of the real Claudio Rojas on his way to a required check-in appointment with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the Election Day 2016 footage in the movie is a reminder that when it comes to current ICE policies and issues, “The Infiltrators” is not just an overly scripted film but it’s also an outdated one.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “The Infiltrators” in virtual cinemas on May 1, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is June 2, 2020.

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