Milisuthando |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Milisuthando Bongela, South Africa, 2023, 128 mins

Cast: Milisuthando Bongela, Jessica Doucha, Marion Isaacs

Review by Ben Thomas

Milisuthando, directed by Milisuthando Bongela, is a sprawling and innovative personal essay that combines stills, historical archive footage, intimate argumentation and rapid montage to tell the story of a what it is to be a black South African woman born in the Republic of Transkei who gradually, from a place of naivety, becomes aware of apartheid, blackness, whiteness—and everything in between.

The film searches for a form capable of containing the immense range of its content, and partly succeeds in doing so, though it somewhat loses its way in the second half as it seeks to find a landing point using contemporary discourse. This being said, Milisuthando has deep emotional and spiritual sensitivity, a well-placed desire to press into the subversion of archival and historical filmmaking, and a radical honesty and vulnerability at its heart.

Milisuthando is titled after the director herself, a black woman, born in the Republic of Transkei in 1985 and growing up there before moving to South Africa. She is from a middle-class Xhosa community and acknowledges this openly. The film, separated into numerous sections, weaves together a number of different genres, but is tied together by Bongela’s determination to understand the occupation of her own body and how she interacts with her own history, family and memories. For Bongela, remembering has to be a careful act. The film is subjective and personal, it foregrounds experience and emotions, the filmmaker herself said she wanted to wield a knife so sharp that it cuts things back together again. There is a constructive, creative violence that stretches out to every inch of Milisuthando: the film strives for intimacy and largely succeeds.

The first half of the film is sublime. The early sections on the creation of the Republic of Transkei, which culminates in a dizzying and arresting montage, are astonishingly put together. Milisuthando’s form and style, as is immediately obvious, has been thought about intensely and meticulously; the editing shares the same curiosity, while also carrying a feeling of unconscious terror regarding what might be discovered and what wounds might be opened up. The film jumps between macro and micro—nation and self—intuitively, as Bongela seeks a satisfying visual representation of her history and to exorcise the terror within us all. Milisuthando, in doing so, explicitly rejects the three act or five act structure: it attempts to overthrow the heart and, at the same time, comment on the state of cinema and its absences up until this point.

Milisuthando loses its way somewhat as it attempts to tie its historical exploration and analysis into the contemporary day. The discussion and interrogation of whiteness with producer Marion Isaacs, while initially interesting, and a helpful insight into their filmmaking process, lacks genuinely fresh thoughts. The film gives too much screen time to the solely verbal conversations which stunts some of the energy built up in the first half of the film.

It is not bad filmmaking, it just isn’t as groundbreaking as some other parts and pales by comparison. Yet, this directorial decision is another example of Bongela’s reluctance to simply make her film fall into line. The sentiments of courageously moving past theory into real relational change hits the mark, but the presentation of those ideas was reluctantly the most theoretical part of the film: it just doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Milisuthando is an ambitious and insightful documentary that has been crafted with immense time and care. Its spectacular use of archive footage and montage, particularly in the opening half, is where the film most obviously excels. It tells an important and overlooked historical narrative with creativity and vigour, repurposing footage to tell a personal story that resonates with its authenticity and honesty. Milisuthando Bongela, herself, is a thoughtful and diligent presence in the film, whose personality is equally infectious and inquisitive: her film shares those same qualities.

Milisuthando, directed by Milisuthando Bongela, had its UK premiere last Thursday at Sheffield Documentary Festival.