Watching the World – Zimbabwe: Neria

On African in-laws.

Trouble with in-laws is a predicament that transcends borders and cultures. Getting along with one member of any given family is never a guarantee that the others will be agreeable in one’s relations, and the odds only grow less favorable of cooperation when material matters such as money, property, and sex are thrown into the mix. Combined with tremendous institutional and customary power to ruin lives, and a patriarch with no moral compass aside from his id; you get the 1993 Zimbabwean picture Neria.

Zimbabwe has never been a country known for her rich cinematic history. Most of the pictures made until the 1980s in this country were horrific propaganda pieces designed to terrorize the majority-black populace into submission towards the Rhodesians, including outright snuff films of guerrillas being eaten by hyenas (which I’ve yet to see uploaded to the Web, but can easily imagine existing in a world where the Dagestani Massacre is unfortunate enough to have been filmed). Combined with the economic ruin brought about by President Robert Mugabe’s brutal land-seizures against thousands of the Nation’s Whites starting in 2000, there has been almost no point in Rhodesian or Zimbabwean history since the invention of film where any kind of cinematic culture could thrive at all.

Aside from the 80s and 90s: when Neria, Flame, Jit, Everyone’s Child, and almost every other fondly-remembered Zimbabwean picture was released; concluding with 2000’s Yellow Card.

With the exception of Wrestlemania XX, it’s hard to think of a feel-good ending more retrospectively depressing than that of Neria. A film about the abuse of tribal custom at the hands of a greedy, selfish in-law named Phineas (Dominic Kanaventi: former Zimbabwe Actor’s Guild President and, as of 2009, an American citizen) who wants to bully his own brother’s widow (Jesese Mungoshi, the titular protagonist) into becoming his second wife; and whose plans are thwarted by the magic of the rule of law and a robust judicial system that cares about the well-being of the nation’s people. Phineas’ hideous disregard for his extended family may be extreme even by chauvanist African tribal standards — he not only steals Neria’s home, but refuses to drive his niece to the hospital when her appendix bursts, leaving Neria to carry her alone on foot — the problem of in-laws stealing homes from widows in Zimbabwe is sadly commonplace to this day.

Zimbabwe’s squander of her promise has been rightly mourned by all aside from the kleptocratic sociopaths currently ruling the unfortunate land; but the spirit of Neria shows not only that the desire for a fair society transcends cultures, those who wish it shall continue to fight for its achievement no matter how long they must tredge through failure on the way.

As for the actual quality of the film: I enjoyed it, but the limitations director Godwin Mawuru was under are more than a little obvious. Namely the audio-recording and the cinematography, which is reminiscent of a budget picture from the 1950s. The most famous person in the picture is a musician and composer of the film’s soundtrack, Oliver Mtukudzi; and during his performances with his band, it’s more than a little obvious that the audio you hear in the film is not the same as what was being performed on the stage. But none of Neria‘s production weaknesses are blatant or distracting enough to be a dealbreaker, and Mtukudzi’s music touches the heart regardless of the listener’s knowledge of Swahili.

I’m glad I watched Neria. The titular character’s triumph may be both literal and metaphorical fiction, but a fight that is righteous and deserving has no bearing on said fight’s odds of success. Literal and metaphorical doom for what is noble is worth more than any number of victories for the side of evil; and if Neria was ultimately on the wrong side of history, it was a loss any with a soul should happily take the dive with.

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O.R. Welles is a current writer trying his hand at film reviewing. He can be found working on his Watching the World series, and linking to the IMDb page of Neria in the post-script of his review.