This is a third draft. The other two, I deleted because for the first one, it was what I would even consider too hard for a film industry in its infancy; the second one? It was because way too long into it I realised that what I was critiquing was not the actual movie that has been presented to us, rather I was critiquing what I wanted it to be – a trap that I have seen most kinder critics of the Malawian product falling in headlong.
This, hoping not to delete it, is what I want to be an honest review of the movie. Not of what I would have wanted it to be, not what it should have been. It is what the movie is.
The then scarce movie, Fatsani, runs for a laborious 144 minutes in which bad acting jostles for space with a smorgasbord of themes, shallow plot and Ndirande-market burning centre filmmaking. I spent an hour of my life, that I will never regain, watching it while most of that time I was shaking my head, wondering how on God’s earth one could come up with such a terrible mix long after the local cinema has witnessed productions of Shemu Joyah, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Flora Suya or some other nameless producers who have long given some sense of direction to the Malawian cinema.
But, to the plot first…or, really, to which plot?
If you can string a thing out of a myriad somethings then this is the plot:
We are all corrupt. Humanity is corrupt. Every character you meet, except Fatsani and her grandmother and the teacher or a few other irrelevant characters, is corrupt. The basic representation of humans that Fatsani brings, in this sloppy poverty-porn display that is a trademark of our visual and written art, would even shock Thomas Hobbes out of his philosophical mind. Humans cannot be this banal, this straightforward, this so predictable. It is such a presentation that spells doom for the picture.
Fatsani comes with a few beautiful shots, of life in Malawi as we know it. But these are beautiful because they are just there to pass time. They also say more about the producers: they are photographers of weddings, music videos, birthday bashes, and sunsets. Not a movie. For, if they were of a movie then they could have showed considerable care in the cutting of the scenes. They do not. The trouble actually welcomes you as soon as 4 minutes where a teacher making an announcement for assembly is way out of sight that you are left wondering if it is community members preparing porridge making the announcement. Seconds later, the misplace of shots comes when Fatsani in a voice over introduces her favourite teacher Mrs Phiri. The camera rests not on her. It goes into a pan then focusing on the headmaster while the narrative still rests on Mrs Phiri. Typical of wedding ceremony photographers!
It actually is a feature of their transitions between scenes. They are slow, uninspiring, and disjointed. How we move from a scene where Fatsani puts out a light signifying late night, then dawn, long shot of headteacher’s office, then early night stealing from school premises, to where it is morning and headmaster is accosting community members for missing maize flour is something only phone camera videographers can understand. But this is a defining feature of this billed movie: in one incident, the teacher in broad daylight is moving out of the community and just when she stops by to bid farewell to Fatsani (a stone throw distance) it is night that the poor family is using a lamp and Fatsani is sleeping; when she is leaving the house then it is dusk. Just what in the hell is happening here, was this footage sourced from the ruins of the tower of Babel?
A terrible storyline, depressing film-making and every other terrible lesson in how not to make a movie appear to not have been enough for a tasteless sickening omelette. They threw in a mix of ridiculous unrelatable acting. What you see in Fatsani are not people acting human emotions, you see people living in an apocalyptic sci-fi future where robots have taken over human life. Actually, robots would even act better in showing emotion than the acting in Fatsani.
It is not the way that people talk, or act. Through and through, the movie moves at a begrudgingly slow pace in which actors are not talking to one another, rather they are reciting (awful rigid recitals) to the camera. They are so lost in thinking about the possible prospects of the movie than about making the actual movie tick. Was there food on set, did these people do ice breakers before appearing before the camera, did they know they were shooting for a movie, did they even know each other, or what really was happening here? This acting looks like security camera footage of a kidnap case.
Take Joyce Chavula, such an actress of repute, or Tannah who is almost lip-syncing for a radio play. They come to the shooting of the movie yet fail to show up for the performance. You cannot, right from the start, relate with them. They are, like most actors that were most likely kidnapped from some random urban music video shoot and found themselves on the set of the movie, absent and lack the energy that one needs for a movie. But for some of these roles there was an easy way of doing it: get actual schoolteachers, tell them to be in their natural environment, let the camera roll. They might not be called actors, yes, but a patient days-or-months-long process of hammering them would have given us some energy. A life to an otherwise drab production. After all, it appears this production was not looking for actors. It just needed humans who can appear before a camera.
2 hours is certainly a lot of time to spend sitting down getting frustrated. I must confess: I never lived to see the end of the movie. At 1 hour, to an accompaniment of beautiful acoustic music from the production, I stopped watching the movie. That people managed to watch it for all its duration – just 15 minutes shy of an entire 2 hours – speaks much to the resilience of Malawians. I opted not to suffer myself.
The only thing one understands after watching the movie is why it was kept hidden like some secret, the only question you are left asking though is: how did this thing find itself in consideration for an award of repute? I mean, its winning of zawana awards from Zambia or wherever is understandable. But someone really had the guts to put this up for an Academy Award. We joke too much in this country!