Reviews Short Documentary

Kukumbuka Mbele [Remembering Beyond] (2020) – 5 stars

Director: Turner Adornetto

Running time:  23mins

There is a certain formula to films on the adaptation of new technologies, to improve the economy and the lives of the inhabitants of a rural area in Africa. An often-taken approach to the task would be to film a conventional, heart on your sleeve, ‘development’ documentary. You will have expert talking heads and a didactic narrative thread delivered by the voice of a well-known actor, if you can get one, explaining the situation on the ground.

The problem with this format is that, apart from specialist academics, very few people are going to watch your film. An alternative is to eschew convention and the constraints of documentary filmmaking and make the film as a lyric poem with the sound and vision of rural life and work interwoven with the voices of local people in conversation – talking about what they are up to. Turner Adornetto takes the latter approach and with Remembering Beyond has produced a beautiful, elegiac piece of cinema.

Adornetto’s main theme is renewable power generation and distribution, in particular solar power – this is going to be about ELECTRICITY. However instead of a linear narrative recounting the advantages of or problems facing solar power generation, the filmmaker takes us on a discursive trip where the theme gradually emerges organically. The film opens and closes with shots of a lake (it was shot in northern Tanganyika) at dawn with flamingos flapping around against a majestic mountain background. This is the only time in the movie where Adornetto utilises the charge of the otherness of the African landscape – for the rest of the film the emphasis is on portraying beauty in the mundane. We cut from the majesty to the camera following small boys out working – herding goats and cattle. Beautifully done and serves as our introduction to the community.

Adornetto then hits us with the darkness of rural Africa but the night is then pierced by a solar powered electric light. Adornetto uses the technique throughout to an extraordinarily telling effect. By being constantly plunged into darkness, we are forced to confront our own taking for granted (I’m writing this in pre-apocalypse suburban UK) that we will always be able to work and play in what would be darkness but for electricity. In one spellbinding shot, it is so good the filmmaker repeats it and rightly so, we see a farmer standing in front of his home, a wicker work round hut with thatched roof with a solar panel mounted on top and solar light by the door in the full afternoon sun then – bam – pitch black but with an almost angelic light illuminating the hut.

As the electricity theme is woven into the fabric of the film, Adornetto manages to capture so much explanatory purpose into single shots. Instead of a long lecture about the late adopter advantage of solar powered generation in a rural setting, we have a shot of a single electricity poll with a confusing mass of cables strung along it and then a series of giant and no doubt hugely expensive electricity pylons en marche across the countryside. Adornetto demonstrates a rare quality in a young filmmaker by managing to intertwine with the main electrical power theme, the locals search for meaning as to the origins of power – all this in just under 23 minutes of screentime.

We learn, conversationally, in the local belief in the sun as God: a villager tells us, “We go to sleep when the god goes to sleep.” Immediately after we see the convoluted electricity pole, by happenstance it has some kind of tau cross appearance, Adornetto cuts to an exquisite shot of a very young girl playing outside of a Christian church – the door is open, and we can hear devotional music. There are two prominent icons – at the apex of the roof the Christian cross and an electric light conspicuously sighted further along the roof with an electrical cable, as serpent, snaking away from the church. Gods and power – done subtly, with no signposting – a fine piece of cinema.

I enjoyed the film’s portrayal of local knowledge and expertise. Remembering Beyond is mercifully not about Western science imposing a worldview – it is very much a meeting of cultures and finding out what will work in rural Tanzania. Sometimes things work and sometimes they do not. Adornetto gives us a brilliant vignette of inductive reasoning being tested. A local mechanic observes that Coke or Pepsi (it has to be those two brands) dissolves carbon. From this specific observation, he moves to the general principle and applies this in trying to clean a motorcycle battery which he thinks has been degraded by carbon – he opens a bottle of Coke and pours it over the battery terminals. The viewer waits expectantly as the motorcycle is kickstarted – a fine sketch of empiricism in action.

Remembering Beyond is a one-person production – Adornetto does the filming, the editing and the sound recording, and he excels in all three departments. Some of the camerawork is simply breath-taking. For me, the standout sequence is a night-time scene in the rain where we get a close-up shot of puddle of water, as the camera pans across the puddle, we get the reflection of wild neon lighting distorted by the rain hitting the water – the camera moves up from the water to reveal the village barber’s shop which we go inside to meet the patrons.

The editing is first class not only the vivid electric shocks moving between night and day, but the flawless knitting together of disparate scenes to form a seamless final product. I was impressed by the soundtrack which is essentially found sound. As the local agriculture is overwhelmingly pastoral and the villagers live pretty close to their animals – the overarching noise is that of livestock – you will be amazed at how loud cattle can shout. The sound is subtly done and impressively adds depth to the visual colour. There is a wonderful touch at the very end of this movie about electricity – as Adornetto cuts to black and the credits, we hear the click of a switch being thrown – we are back in the darkness – the god is asleep.   

On occasion, when I have reviewed documentaries for IFL, they have been so powerful and engaging that I had to find out more about the production and the thinking of the people who made them – examples that come to mind are Akimi Ota’s Kanarta: Alive in Dreams and Shein Mazour’s A Dilo. And this was the case with Turner Adornetto and Remembering Beyond. I was astonished to learn that this was Adornetto’s first adult attempt at movie making – he has certainly shown a great feel for cinema and is a remarkable talent. The only other person, apart from the members of the Songita family, the filmmaker’s hosts in Tanganyika, in the credits, is another filmmaker – Vera Brunner-Sung. Brunner-Sung teaches film at Ohio State University and was Adornetto’s mentor. Whatever it is they are doing over at Ohio State, on the evidence of Remembering Beyond, it is working pretty well.

For aspiring indy filmmakers, Adornetto’s astonishing story, and how he came to make his movie could be inspirational. You can find the details on the Ohio State University website. I am sure Remembering Beyond will gain many awards on the festival circuit and, through its flair and imaginative power, it is going to reach a far wider audience than the constrained, uptight offerings that are the usual product of the development studies treadmill.

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