Dominican Oscar entry explores homeland ties for Africans in the Caribbean

At the beginning of writer-director Ivan Herrera’s understatedly layered Bantú Mama, the current Dominican Republic’s Oscar-winning actor for best international feature, a brief display of cheerful magical realism encapsulates his subtle thesis of diasporic kinship.

With big smiles on their faces, three Afro-Dominican siblings – Cuki (Euris Javiel), TINA (Scarlet Reyes) and $hulo (Arturo Perez) – jump up and down alongside Emma (Clarisse Albrecht), an adult Afro-American from France ) , as if they were part of the Maasai from Kenya. Suddenly, the clothes Cuki is wearing transform into the traditional clothing and accessories of said tribe. For a moment he and the Maasai are one and the same.

The atmospheric drama tells of the inseparable links between Africa and the Caribbean without ever discussing it academically, but instead illustrates the connectedness with the everyday exchange between the unexpected visitor from abroad and the locals. For example, one morning the makeshift family shares a plate of fritos verdes or tostones, which reminds Emma of aloko, a West African dish that also includes plantains.

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Seeing their similarities across oceans surprises Cuki, the youngest, who struggles to understand how Emma can be French yet still identify with her Bantú heritage. But for TINA, a confident teenager, there’s no doubt that Emma suits them.

Emma isn’t her mother—at least not biologically. But she quickly takes on a mothering role in this unsupervised household. She cooks for them and helps Cuki with homework. But more importantly, she provides the kind of reassurance and encouragement that only a loving parent figure can provide. By building their self-esteem with simple affirmations, she teaches them to see themselves as more than those around them.

Emma is arrested after an illegal business deal goes awry and, thanks to a happy accident, ends up with the three minors in the embattled El Capotillo neighborhood of Santo Domingo (the country’s capital). Now her only chance to return to her life in France is with the help of the trio of silently adopted children whose mother died while their father was in prison. But Herrera isn’t interested in telling just another crime story as a means of survival for disenfranchised young people in the developing world.

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Though he sets his play in a marginalized community — largely populated, on screen at least, by black Dominicans — he and cinematographer Sebastian Cabrera Chelin avoid dirty portrayals. The concrete labyrinths of El Capotillo teem with life, whether it’s $hulo and friends rapping or motorcycles pirouetting; People’s lives are not determined by suffering.

Through their handheld yet delicately lit conception, Cabrera Chelin’s imagery packs an intoxicating power coupled with a haunting soundscape that infuses the narrative with an air of otherworldliness, almost as if implying that this encounter between Emma and the siblings is not accidental, but preordained, had happened beyond their control.

Behind the camera, Albrecht is co-writing the screenplay and presumably brings her own experiences as a French woman from Cameroon to the story. As Emma, ​​the actress is reserved. There’s an undeniable warmth in the way she treats the kids, but also a distance that keeps her enigmatic to them and to us. There is little evidence of her past in Europe, but an open sea of ​​possibilities for her future. Still, the filmmaker could have added a bit more background for Emma without losing her mysterious demeanor. If we understood her decision to even be involved in drug dealing, it would enrich her story arc.

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Herrera’s young actors act with such a natural openness to this stranger in their home that it doesn’t take the viewer much to believe they’ve embraced her fully. Reyes, who plays TINA, is notable for the mature practicality with which she demands a life-changing favor from Emma in exchange for her financial help so she can leave. The determination in the young performer’s eyes conveys both desperation and hope.

Just as covertly beneath the surface, the filmmakers address the dehumanizing treatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, a consequence of history between the two former colonies that share the island of Hispaniola. The trio of children immediately assume that every French-speaking black man is an undocumented Haitian. At first they mistake Emma for a Haitian, and later immigration officials come to the same conclusion.

Within its succinct running time, Bantú Mama conjures up a number of revealing points about the African diaspora and how the western white world has distanced them from their glorious past and thus their sense of belonging. Although initially appearing out of context, throughout the film Herrera and Albrecht include footage of Île de Gorée, an island off the coast of Senegal known in previous centuries as a key location in the Atlantic slave trade, as if to suggest that maybe her homeland is for this surrogate mother and her chosen relatives are neither the Dominican Republic nor France, but the African continent.

Bantú Mama premieres on Netflix on November 17th.

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