A high school girl who dreams of being a doctor encounters trials and temptations in this modern fable that vividly captures the plight of women seeking education and a better life in postcolonial Africa. Sofia lives in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, the former Portuguese colony on the southeast coast of Africa that achieved independence in 1974, and that remains poor and underdeveloped. Traditional attitudes towards women’s roles in the family and community still prevail; the film’s title comes from a proverb, “sending a girl to school is like watering another man’s garden”.
The film follows several months in Sofia’s life as she attempts to complete high school with grades high enough to get her into university. There are plenty of obstacles; personal, familial, societal. Her boyfriend, interested only in his own ambitions to play professional soccer, is jealous of Sofia’s educational goals and pressures her to quit school and marry him. Sofia’s mother only grudgingly supports her daughter’s education, and encourages her to work instead at the local quarry where she herself is employed.
Sofia’s teacher catches her passing exam answers to a classmate, and threatens to fail her unless she has sex with him, a practice so common at the school that Sofia’s best friend Jessica refers to trading sex for favors as using a “credit card”. All these conflicts reach a crisis, but are only partially resolved, and the film ends on a modest note of hope for Sofia’s future.
Jessica, with ambitions to be a fashion model, Sofia’s mother and grandmother, and Jessica’s older sister, a doctor, offer a range of female roles for the young woman, as well as an instructive survey of the possible futures for black girls in Mozambique. The limitations to the assistance they can offer Sofia in the face of entrenched sexism and paternalism powerfully underscore the precarious nature of the young woman’s dream.
Like much cinema from developing countries, Another Man’s Garden provides stark contrasts. Cinematic realism complements the features of traditional storytelling (shots of city streets and shantytown blocks, frank discussions of the prevalence of HIV), including parables from the animal world (wildlife footage interrupts the story frequently to stress the analogy established early between Sofia and the impala, which can delay birth or even abort its young, when threatened), and stock characters like Sofia’s wise, aphorism-spouting grandmother.
But for all the traditional elements, Sofia is a complex character whose imperfections might shock Western audiences used to a strong dose of morality in films dealing with teens. She helps another student cheat on an exam, and steals a shirt from a market vendor after she has scorched hers with an iron. She has an established sexual relationship with her boyfriend, which the film presents as a medical threat, given the dangers of unprotected sex, not a moral failing.
Low-budget production values occasionally impinge on the film’s effect. Another Man’s Garden is shot on video, and some of the cast appear to be amateurs, or at least actors unused to film. In terms of plot, these limitations work to the film’s advantage; there are no wasted scenes, and the action is well paced.
The video image lacks depth, however, and makes interior scenes especially look flat and stagy. Daytime crowd scenes work best, where video lends the freshness and vitality of documentary footage. Sound can be a problem at times: while the dialog is clear, music is often distorted.
Another Man’s Garden is the first feature from director, co-writer, and executive producer João Luis Sol de Carvalho, a journalist, photographer, and film and television producer. The film is part of the Global Lens film series, which “promotes cross-cultural understanding through cinema” with yearly tours of the US of “films from developing countries”. For more information, go to GlobalFilm.org.
The Global Lens Film Series aims to place its films in classrooms, and the DVD contains a pdf of instructional materials, including a brief history of Mozambique, maps and statistics, a biography of the director, and the director’s notes about the film. While the section on film aesthetics is rudimentary, appropriate for high school, perhaps, but certainly too simplistic for college, the discussion questions would be helpful to a teacher using the film in a university class. DVD extras include a trailer for films in the 2007 Global Lens film series, and a showcase of series titles.