TIFF ’21 Mlungu Wam (Good Madam): Post-apartheid South Africa and the horrors it left behind
By Nelie Diverlus
“A vivid, strangely thriller” is one way of describing Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ’21 at their opening night Platform programme. This story encompasses a young mother, Tsidi, reeling from the passing of her grandmother. With no other choice, she sets out with her daughter to stay in the residence of her own mother, who is a housekeeper for a woman they refer to as, “Madame”. With strange, unexplained occurrences surrounding her in the house, Tsidi begins to question if she and her daughter can actually feel safe in this house, or if they should find the means to leave as soon as possible. With the systemic issues mentioned in this story, this film illustrates the true day-to-day horrors that Black people, most specifically Black South-Africans, face to this day
This story is a marvellous illustration of the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa. Protagonist Tsidi has her suspicions raised throughout the film’s entirety; she is already unapproachable, considering she has to be in the presence of her estranged mother. When the presence of “Madame” is making her question the wellness of her mother (considering she works tirelessly to provide for her), Tsidi increasingly questions the safety of this home, comparing the sight of her mother overworking to the apartheid.
South-African director Jenna Cato Bass successfully introduces us to cinema beyond our North American understanding of film. A new dawn of thriller has landed, as Bass stems inspiration from Jordan Peele and Ousmane Sembène, in centering the actual day-to-day horrors living as a Black woman in South Africa ensues, rather than other horror figures that have no social relevance. The centering of real-life horrors - makes the film ever more unsettling, as this adds more relatability to the story – a great fear of any horror movie viewer.
“The centering of real life horrors makes the film ever more unsettling, as this adds more relatability to the story – a great fear of any horror movie viewer.”
As far as visuals go, this film definitely does not disappoint. The glorious hues of browns, blues and yellows adds a level of royalty to an already regal setting where the story takes place. In addition, the presentation of glass and porcelain at countless points in the film increases the stakes and tension of the story, considering they are very fragile and easily breakable. In contrast, however, the numerous extended shots of ordinary objects (while beautifully framed), practically go nowhere, leaving the viewer empty with extra footage that does not contribute to the story.
Order and cleanliness are great themes of this story; down to the shots of scrubbing and washing, and even the arrangement of picture frames and artwork, the viewer can see that there is never room for mess. This supports the housekeeper narrative that is perpetuated throughout the film, and while mess is condemned, disobedience is disciplined. Furthermore, sound also marvellously projects this story forward. The spiritual elements of the film are supported by chanting that increases in volume.
While this film was visually captivating, this film’s resolution was far too unresolved for one to take in. The story was left open-ended, leaving the viewer with many more questions than they entered with. Everything, supposedly, gets quickly answered within the last ten minutes of the film, suggesting that the story opened more doors than they could close. One can be rather confused upon finishing this film – nothing really gets answered.
“While this film was visually captivating, this film’s resolution was far too unresolved for one to take in.”
Mlungu Wam properly evokes relatability with this story – the eeriness of racism and social inequity is increasingly hard to fathom, and this film effectively divests in this. Themes of family and connection are properly explored in this film, allowing the viewer to relate to that similar feeling of hoping for a better life for your loved one. This film teaches us that horror and thrillers extend beyond conjured fables; everyday realities for the marginalized are horrors within themselves.
Editor’s Note: Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ’21, as part of the Platform programme.