More than blankets, mountains and horse rides

The film "Forgotten Kingdom" has become one of the most powerful representations of Lesotho. Does it get it right?

The Forgotten Kingdom,” the new feature film by American director Andrew Mudge, depicts the story of a rebellious young man called Atang, toiling in inner city Johannesburg. When Atang’s father, living elsewhere in a Joburg township, passes away, he must voyage back to his homeland of Lesotho to honour his father’s wish to be buried in the “forgotten” country of his birth. While at home Atang sparks an intimate connection with an old friend, Dineo. He then embarks on a challenging journey of self-discovery, guided by a mysterious young shepherd, as he readjusts to the now foreign landscape of the Mountain Kingdom and her people.

Here’s the trailer.

Known for having one of the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, the Kingdom of Lesotho has been host to many HIV-centered film projects shot among the nation’s scenic valleys and modest thatched houses. It is almost typical to associate Lesotho with HIV. “The Forgotten Kingdom” once again weaves the pandemic into its overall storyline, though it succeeds at being one of the most visually spectacular films ever shot in the country. By virtue of its particularly wide reach, having been screened across the Unites States, it has become one of the most powerful representations of our country. Still, as usually is the case when one represents another culture, the film is not immune to critique.

The film made its premiere in Lesotho on March 1st to a VIP audience, which included Lesotho’s monarchy (King Letsie III and Queen ‘Mamohato Seeiso) in its ranks. The film had been on peoples’ lips since it was shot in 2011. The hype had only intensified after its international debut in 2013 and it’s series of award nominations. I went to the Lesotho premiere fortified with awareness that “no one can tell your story better than you can yourself.”

Before the first frame, several things had been floating in my mind. Firstly the writer/director Andrew Mudge likely had somewhat of a romantic experience with Lesotho, one different from Basotho. Secondly, leading roles are occupied by South African actors while locally-based talent serves as support. Thirdly, the movie debuted in America (winning awards for the Best Narrative Feature and Best Cinematography at the Woodstock Film Festival) before it came to Lesotho where it was shot. I was a skeptic who wanted answers, so I went into the theatre beaming with curiosity about how my country would be depicted.

Upon watching the film, it became apparent to me that “The Forgotten Kingdom” offers a limited biography of Lesotho. The Lesotho I know is vibrant, transcending the narrative of HIV so often ascribed to it. It is home to visionaries who produce creative work and intellectual property from a first world perspective in a so-called third world country. There is more to the country than blankets, mountains and horse rides.

In addition, some of the details Basotho culture in the film have been altered in strange ways. For example, the blankets (which are an important aspect of our traditional cultural attire) as worn by the protagonist Atang and his shepherd guide are out of place. The shepherd, a young boy, is wearing a blanket only worn by older men who have graduated from initiation school and Atang is initially wearing his blanket like women do. It is not clear why these style choices were made. Was it by error, or was it to make a statement? Regardless, these wardrobe malfunctions, deliberate or not, contradict the way many traditional Basotho see themselves.

The spellings of words and names are also disconnected from the Basotho culture of Lesotho. Dineo, the name of the love interest, should be written as Lineo in Lesotho’s Sesotho language (but pronounced with the “D” sound, as in my name). The spelling of Lineo with a D is the more Western-oriented South African way. These details are an indication that the film is concerned with privileging foreign audiences over those at home in Lesotho.

Yet still, the awesomeness of the landscape captured by the film’s cinematography is something to behold. The setting is a character in itself. Mudge cited that the Director of Photography, Carlos Carvalho, had his work cut out for him because his challenging task was to grade with flawless poise what mother-nature had already brilliantly crafted in Lesotho’s delicate mountains. This was done with admirable artistry.

When the lights came on at the end of the film, I was left with the insight that the film communicates to us as Basotho that we live on a grand movie set, that our stories, trivial as we may assume them to be, deserve audience. Overall, there were a number of elements of The Forgotten Kingdom to appreciate – the cinematography the dialogue and the quality of the acting (the shepherd Lebohang Ntsane stole the show). But my biggest takeaway from the film was the hope that it will summon Basotho writers, filmmakers, aspiring actors and the public as a whole to be more active in telling our own stories. There are a number of Basotho whose creative work warrants greater attention. But for those Basotho in need of a wake-up call, the film speaks in the tone of a travelling messenger who is bewildered and wants to know: “why are you sleeping on your own allure, aesthetics and talent? More especially, why do you flirt with the attractions of foreign lands when you live on a treasure you can explore practically for free?”

* The Forgotten Kingdom opened in theaters on April 4th in Lesotho and on April 11th in South Africa.

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