How far would you go to save your own life? How far would you go to save the life of someone you love? Deceptively minimalist in its story and action, the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar entry “Bantú Mama” is a slow burner that rewards viewers with its poignant meditations on survival, the diaspora experience, and family, both biological and found.
Clarisse Albrecht stars as Emmanuelle, AKA Emma, a Cameroonian-French embroiled in legal trouble after a botched attempt to smuggle cocaine into the Dominican Republic. After her arrest, the police car transporting Emma gets into a collision, killing the officer but sparing Emma, granting her a lifeline.
With nowhere to go, Emma chances upon three siblings: T.I.N.A. (Scarlet Reyes), her older brother $hulo (Arturo Perez), and younger brother Cuki (Euris Javiel), all played by first-time actors. The older two take Emma into their parentless home, ostensibly self-sufficient thanks to the business savvy of T.I.N.A. and $hulo, who have inherited the burden of the family drug enterprise from their now-incarcerated father.
Albrecht’s character is initially taciturn and stoic yet her barriers slowly dissolve as she fosters a friendship with the children. She has a natural affinity with the two younger children and falls into a maternal role. One scene sees Emma sharing her Bantu origins with Cuki, who has asked if Cameroon is located in Haiti. He demonstrates how members of the Maasai tribe dance, jumping up and down to imitate what he saw on TV, inviting Emma to do the same. The two are then joined by the older children in an impromptu dance honoring the Maasai people of Kenya.
In another scene, Emma fastens a headwrap around T.I.N.A.’s hair, emphasizing to the child the different avenues of self-expression the accessory offers: “You may think it’s just a piece of fabric on your head, but depending on how the way you wear it, you could say different things: ‘My hair is a mess’ or ‘I want to be seen with my crown.’”
Reyes’ arresting performance as the street smart and fearless T.I.N.A. is so effortless and convincing, it’s easy to forget that it’s her first big screen role. It is T.I.N.A. who looks after Cuki, who negotiates Emma’s safe repatriation to France or a nearby French-speaking country: “I know better, cause I’m the one with the money,” she tells a lawyer who tries to shortchange them for his services. When the man they are enlisting for the job expresses fear of her father, T.I.N.A. announces “Forget it. I’m in charge.” While $hulo is the de facto head of the household, it is the middle child who pulls the strings behind the scenes. It is T.I.N.A’s precocious aplomb that makes her a fitting ally to the quiet, impenetrable Emma, both characters driven by survival instincts.
Emma remains as cryptic to the audience as she does to the trio of children: we don’t know why she suddenly leaves her Parisian apartment for the Dominican Republic, why she engages in drug trafficking in a place she’s entirely foreign to, nor why she “[has] no one” to turn to in her hour of need, as she reveals to the children. “Well, you’ll explain to me later,” $hulo concedes when Emma does not answer his interrogation. But she never does. Neither the siblings nor the audience ever learn about her mysterious history or motivations.
One consistency, however, is that Emma is a woman in perpetual flight, lodged in an anxious liminality. First in inexplicably departing her home in France, then in evading authorities in the Dominican Republic. She is told to remain indoors, lest she is caught without paperwork by the authorities. Throughout “Bantú Mama,” Emma is a woman untethered from her home, detained in the shadows of her hiding place while she awaits a passage back to France.
The bilingual film, with dialogue in both Spanish and French, explores the Black diaspora experience in Santo Domingo, the oldest city established by European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. As a port of entry for Spanish colonialism, Santo Domingo serves as an apt setting for Emma’s nomadic journey and multicultural identity. When asked by Cuki how she can be both Bantu and French, she answers, “One doesn’t exclude the other,” a statement that would resonate with many members of any diaspora. “Bantú Mama” validates the sense of alienation second-generation immigrants often feel towards both their own heritage and the culture they were transplanted or born into. As Emma demonstrates, these facets of identity don’t have to be mutually exclusive and can be reconciled to form its own category of identity.
“Bantú Mama” premiered at SXSW Film Festival this year and will hit select theaters and Netflix November 17. Albrecht co-wrote and co-produced the film.