Monday, 27 April 2015

HOT DOCS 2015: LEAVING AFRICA - Review By Greg Klymkiw *****

Leaving Africa (2015)
Dir. Iiris Härmä

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Uganda is a beautiful country and so are its people, but it's been fraught with scourges like the butcher dictator Idi Amin Dada and in recent years, organized religion. The intolerance, repression and mass-manipulation continue to run rampant in the country, but there are many brave people who constantly struggle against it. Certainly, the 2013 Hot Docs presentation of Call Me Kuchu by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall was a numbing, powerful and moving experience which detailed the country's hatred towards the LGBT/GLBT community.

Leaving Africa is a new film which superbly presents its material and story with a combination of filmmaking excellence and compulsively fascinating subject matter. Friendship forged through a mutual appreciation for education is the heart that drives Iiris Härmä's truly great film.

Finland's Riitta Kujala lived in Uganda for 27 years, bringing public health education to the country and nurturing new domestic generations of those who can continue this vital work. When the film begins, she is 67 years old, already past retirement and embarking upon what might be the crowning glory of her legacy and by extension, that of Finland and the Ugandans who carry-on and support her endeavours. She begins an important workshop devoted to gender equality and sexual health aimed squarely at Uganda's religious leaders. Given that so much of the country's difficulties have stemmed from the backwards idiocy perpetrated by many of God's cheerleaders in collaboration with a government too often exhaling a miasma of extreme conservatism, this is not only an action of utmost significance, but a brave one as well.

Riitta's best friend and housemate Kata Othieno is also a chief and equal partner in all of her educational initiatives. She's as big-hearted as they come and visually, her tall, robust, full-figured beauty is a lovely contrast to that of Riitta's lean, slender and seemingly steely - dare I say, "buff" - physical countenance. At age 63, Kata could still have her pick of any litter of hunky suitors, but after an often tempestuous and outright abusive life with men, she's eschewed their place in her life - she's tired of lap-doggish gents hiding their pit bull nature. Education is her constant bedfellow and driving force.

Luckily for Riitta, she not only has a dear friend and colleague in Kata, but a family. Kata's children and grand kids are the genuinely loving progeny she avoided physically bearing herself, especially having remained single her entire life.

And then, there is the work - a life's work that these two dynamic women have shared. One of the more fascinating and delightful elements of this are the workshops for the Ugandan religious leaders. They've come from all over the country and represent a variety of faiths within the purviews of Christian and Muslim persuasions. Huge drawings of female genitalia with a pointer aimed at various parts of the equation meet the (often) open-mouths of the assembled pupils.

Role playing, discourse, questions and answers relating to sexuality and gender are engagingly presented by the filmmaker in a manner that documents the undertaking itself as well as delivering ideas and information that the participants are ultimately eager to learn about. These deftly-captured-and-cut sequences also contribute greatly to film's compelling narrative. (I'd even argue that some of these sequences might well provide a much-needed education to "enlightened" Western gentlemen who see the film, though, for me, as a descendant of sensitive, open-minded, Easter-Rite-influenced Ukrainian Cossacks, it served merely as that which has already been bred in the bone. Sort of.)

Though much of the film feels idyllic, the crushing reality of repression, tribalism and corruption rears its ugly head - threatening to scuttle Riitta and Kata's influential ongoing legacy. Riitta feels the pull of retirement and returning to her native Finland, but none of that is going to achieve fruition if an anonymous letter to the Ugandan government, fraught with horrendous allegations and serving as a virtual poison pen blackmail tome, destroys everything.

Riitta and Kata are going to fight this to the end. It might be bitter, bittersweet or uplifting, but love, friendship and dedication will persevere through whatever tempests brew up in the grand, but oft-repressed nation of Uganda.

The miss-en-scene and cutting that impel Leaving Africa are so potent that director Iiris Härmä's extraordinary film feels like one of the best independent neo-realist dramas I've seen in years - worthy, certainly, of the same pantheon occupied by the likes of the Dardennes Brothers. The difference, of course, is that we're watching a documentary and matched by filmmaking of the highest order.

The Film Corner Rating: ***** Five Stars

Leaving Africa is making its International Premiere at the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Visit the Hot Docs website for dates, showtimes and tickets by clicking HERE.