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Meanwhile in Mamelodi
cover art

Meanwhile in Mamelodi

Director: Benjamin Kahlmeyer
Cast: Steven Mtsweni, Moskito Mtsweni

(Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, Südwestrundfunk (SWR); Camden International Film Festival: 30 Sep 2012; 2011)

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Special Flight (Vol spécial)

Director: Fernand Melgar
Cast: Geordry, Ragip, Jeton, Serge, Julius, Alain

(Climage, CAT&Docs; Camden International Film Festival: 30 Sep 2012; UK theatrical: 29 Oct 2012 (General release); 2011)

Things Will Change Because of This

“When I grew up,” says Moskito Mtsweni, “I started to see my parents were suffering.” Moskito is just 17, but already, she’s grown up, thinking about her responsibilities and her opportunities. She and her parents live in Mamelodi, in Extension 11 in South Africa. “It’s not a real city,” she explains as you look out a pickup truck windshield onto dirt streets, ramshackle homes and squatters’ shacks. “It’s what we call a township, divided into many sections, like extensions and phases, just like in a science fiction movie.” Her father, Steven, drives the truck while she rides in the back. “We live in the shack side,” she says.

Describing her neighborhood in Meanwhile in Mamelodi—which screened at the Camden International Film Festival this weekend—Moskito smiles when she begins to talk about football (soccer), which she plays daily. The film is shot as 2010 World Cup is starting, played in nine cities around the nation, one nearby Mamelodi. Moskito has a chance to attend a match at Loftus Stadium. First the camera follows her as she makes her way inside, the crowd loud and blurred, and then it cuts to Steven, back at his shop, where the black and white TV makes it hard to tell the teams apart, but still, he leans into the screen and cheers when the south African team scores a goal.

The scene is stunning, in both its visual simplicity and its tremendous emotional effect: the camera stays focused on Steven’s face in profile, in the doorway, so you see no TV. But as the sound indicates what’s happening and Steven’s expression turns euphoric, a rush of people from inside the room, also watching, overwhelms the small frame of the door: bodies and colors and hands and smiles fill the image, gorgeous and chaotic and utterly joyous.

On one hand, Steven’s response alludes to the many effects of sports, as they provide welcome distraction and an emphatic sense of identity, and also constitute an industry that has little to do with Extension 11. “The big companies,” Steven observes, “They’re going to benefit from the stadium, but small businesses, we must stay three or four streets away from the stadium. How can you make money like that you can’t?” On the other hand, as Steven imagines Moskito at the stadium, he also imagines the future before her. It will be better than his, he says, because she is getting an education. As the film reveals, going to school and having even meager access to images of a world beyond Extension 11, Moskito is hopeful. She and her best friend Nonhlanhla put off flirtatious boys or shop for clothes. She keeps focused on her schoolwork, she looks after her mother, suffering from an unnamed but plainly taxing emotional illness.

When her mother—also framed in a doorway—says she hopes Moskito and her sister won’t “make a mistake,” the off-screen interviewer presses for details. “So, you don’t like to see her hanging around with boys?” The mother smiles, noting, “I was speaking more indirectly,” before she says it plain: “If you hang yourself with boys,” she declares, her smile bright and painful too, “You are going to suffer, you are not in a right life. You are going to suffer.”

The film never reveals how Moskito’s mother came to this idea, though the fundamental stress of her daily life may shape it. Her children are looking ahead, and at least as they speak with the filmmakers, they’re at once careful and confident. As Moskito and Nonhlanhla describe their friendship, they smile, shy and delighted too. When Steven takes their ailing son Thabang to the hospital, where he is duly poked and prodded, the camera hovers nearby as the child bursts into tears, finds comfort in his father’s arms, and then distraction in the doctor’s tongue depressor. His face, like Steven’s and Moskito’s, is open and curious.

And, as Steven describes his daughter’s chances for going to medical school, and as you see her on a soccer field or see her and tiny Thabang sleeping during a World Cup match the family has gathered to see on TV. They’re both too exhausted to stay awake, and besides, Moskito says, “I want to play, not to watch.” Her love of the game comes from her father, even if he had to change his thinking about what girls can do. “My dad started recognizing I can play soccer,” she says over beautiful shots of the girls practicing, legs and arms churning, powerful and so full of promise. “He started saying, ‘Go on, my girl, play soccer. You’ll be like your dad someday.”

Special Flight

Special Flight

Fathers and children provide another sort of dynamic in Special Flight (Vol special), also at the Camden Festival. But where Moskito and her father persist in propulsive, vibrant movement, the fathers in Fernand Melgar’s documentary are profoundly immobile. “I can’t leave,” Ragip says by way of his introduction in the film. He’s detained at Frambois Prison in Switzerland.

No matter that Ragip has paid taxes and social insurance contributions for two decades, or that he has three children and a wife in Geneva. Ragip has been “picked up,” and so, he now faces three possibilities, an agent at the institution explains. If his legal case works out, he might be released. More likely, he will choose between a “regular flight” back to Kosovo, which might allow him the chance to blend into a crowd on landing, or a “special flight,” chained and shepherded by police officers and immigration officials. Given these “choices,” Ragip insists neither is possible. He shakes his head, again and again. “I understand,” he tells the agent. “I’m not leaving.”

One of thousands of men and women imprisoned without trial or sentence in Switzerland each year, Ragip is also one of several subjects in the film. Imprisoned and then shipped back to countries they haven’t see in years and where their lives might be at risk, they spend long days and nights alone and unknowing, sometimes brutally restrained (strapped to chairs, dressed in diapers, unable to move), and rarely offered options.

As the film reveals, the prisoners at Frambois, who number 25 to 28 at a time, know what’s at stake, live each day in limbo, knowing they have no say in what happens next. “Mentally speaking,” observes Geordry, “It’s very hard to be here.” In between their interviews with agents—who maintain what seems a frightening focus on the task before them, unable to acknowledge even basic facts. “I understand this must be difficult for you,” an official tells Pitchou, who in turn tries to explain the danger he faces back in Africa, not to mention the fact that he has a fiancée and a baby in Aigle. “It’s not up to me to solve this,” the agent says. “I haven’t done anything,” Pitchou protests. “I have a work contract.” Looking over the table at the unflinching agent, he speaks his mind:  “It’s as if I was faced with a devil, trying to convince him, not getting anywhere. You with your square ideas, just out to hurt people.”

This feeling is emphasized by the film’s tight spaces and confined frames. And if the agents can’t show sympathy to the inmates before them, some of them do show their own frustrations during meetings among themselves. As they discuss cases that might be changing or plan the moments when they’ll inform prisoners they’re on their way to the airport for their special flights (they try to manage the news out of sight of other inmates, knowing the reactions it might incite), it’s clear they live with their own vexations—partly because they know the tragic history of such flights, namely, some prisoners die in custody due to guards’ abuse or neglect.

Following one such incident, reported by a prisoner who was on a flight with a victim and then returned to Frambois, an agent named Denis, suggests, “Things will change because of this.” Abdoul, a prisoner, shakes his head, “I’ll bet nothing will change,” then imagines a future mostly like not his own: “Sooner or later, Africa will be our home again,” he says. “We just came here to find a better life, because you came to Africa and ruined everything… Sooner or later, we’ll go back, but nothing will change here.”

Amid the many scenes that show men in their cells, in the cafeteria, or playing soccer in the tiny prison yard, unable to forget their impending flights, for planes roar overhead each day, Abdoul’s brief, extraordinarily civil outburst makes clear how used to waiting the prisoners have become. They live each day without choices, only scant hopes that a lawyer will find a way around for the occasional individual.


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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4 Jul 2013
When Geordry left his home and applied for asylum in Switzerland, he didn't guess that he'd be captured and incarcerated at Frambois Prison in Geneva, caught for long months between nations and governments.
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Two remarkable documentaries, Special Flight and The Waiting Room, show how hard it is to wait, as subjects face uncertain futures, full of dread, hoping against hope that something will change, knowing they have no say in what happens next.
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The brilliant documentaries In My Mother's Arms and Meanwhile in Mamelodi both show trauma and survival, reminding you of what might be.
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