Director: Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera
Malawi is a tiny, landlocked nation in Southern Africa with very little in terms of a cinematic tradition, but a significant recent swell of interest in grassroots filmmaking. The film I’ve chosen to represent Malawi on this blog is B’ella – a modern coming-of-age story which aims to highlight many of the social issues faced by the country’s youth.
B’ella was funded and produced by the Malawian non-governmental organisation boNGO Worldwide as part of their efforts to raise education standards in the country. boNGO plans to distribute the film to schools and cinemas across Malawi, and even abroad. I’d like to preface this entry by thanking boNGO directly for giving me access to a copy of B’ella and thereby making this entry possible.
B’ella is the story of a seventeen year old schoolgirl in a small Malawian village, and the challenges she faces in her daily life. Through the eyes of B’ella and her schoolmates, we see many of the social issues that affect Malawian youth: bullying, teen pregnancy, mental illness, and even HIV/AIDS – the latter being alarmingly common in Malawi with over 10% of the adult population testing positive for HIV. But the main narrative of the film concerns unwanted romantic advances towards B’ella from her maths teacher, who has already coerced other girls in her class for sexual favours in exchange for better grades.
The above description of the subject matter may make the film seem bleak or upsetting. However, the film’s storytelling has enough compassion and optimism that the overall tone is actually one of hope. B’ella’s loyalty and kind nature allow her to manage the hardships in her life, and these qualities spread to those around her. With the exception of the predatory maths teacher, nobody in B’ella is beyond forgiveness or unworthy of friendship – even the vain, popular girl Kalilole who bullies B’ella throughout the film is redeemed by a change of heart later on.
This tone makes for a more entertaining and emotionally satisfying story, but in light of the filmmakers’ stated goal of educating Malawian youth about societal issues, it can at times seem slightly naïve. Specifically, the way B’ella and Kalilole bring the lecherous teacher to justice is enjoyable to watch from a narrative standpoint, but not especially veristic or helpful to viewers who may be trapped in similar situations in the real world. The film’s intentions could not be purer, but at times it struggles to find the balance between being an accessible piece of entertainment, and a force for tangible social change. It is best understood as a film which seeks to provoke discussion of the problems it depicts, rather than to provide solutions itself.
B’ella shows some of the same technical teething problems as other works from emerging film industries I’ve written about on this blog. The quality of the sound recording, in particular, is somewhat below the standards of mainstream Western cinema. However, this is more than made up for with stylish camerawork, effective editing, and genuinely impressive performances from the young cast members.
Filmgoing in rural Malawi is an extremely popular and affordable pastime, evidenced by the ubiquity of small, makeshift cinemas called “video-shows” across the country. B’ella is intended to be not just art or entertainment, but an educational tool as well. It is constructed with an eye for clarity and honesty, but also for engaging drama and for humour. It is intended to be a hybrid film, equally suited to both the cinema and the classroom, but is only somewhat successful in realising this dual identity. However, despite its shortcomings, the film provides a fascinating glimpse into the unique role that filmmaking has the potential to play in developing nations.