Set largely in a Zambian farm—home of the Mweemba clan—writer/director/confidante Maggie Betts’ début documentary sends decidedly mixed messages about the present-day reality of People Living With AIDS.
Seen predominantly (and ever so courageously) through the eyes of Mutinta Mweemba the stark realities of—incredibly—still permissible polygamous families (although we learn that the quota of wives has been reduced to two as part of the tribal council’s three-pronged remedies to cut down the rate of infection) and the related chauvinism of their patriarchs come home to roost in devastatingly tragic form.
Having been sold (a.k.a. dowry) for the princely sum of four cows, Mutinta despairs early on that her husband, Abarcon, lied when he proposed. Two other wives are part of the family. Brenda, the first to get sick and curiously a fast friend of Mutinta once “I just got used to it” and Matildah who is icily ignored and isolated by her co-baby makers. Because he has “needs” (not least of which seems to be replacing his mother’s extra special love), Abarcon—even when he tests positive and generally condom free—selfishly continues his lustful ways (his declamation “I have a right to enjoy myself” are truly words to die for). Who knows how many other hapless women got more than they bargained for after rolling with the devoted father?
It can never be conclusively known who infected whom as Mutinta had a pre-marriage affair with a man who might well have been carrying the virus into coitus. But once the diagnoses have been made, it is the women who suffer most (Brenda gradually shrivels up before dying one Christmas Day) as they fight the insidious disease for themselves and their unexpected further offspring. (The other children, ranging up to the age of 11, seem to be healthy precocious kids whose parents have sent them down the road of probable orphans thanks to the twin terrors of need and greed.)
Moses, Abarcon’s long-suffering father, bemoans the fact that families don’t sit down together anymore but, nonetheless, dutifully visits his son, daughters-in-law and grandchildren being careful never to mention the disease that dare not speak its name.
The second major venue is the mission hospital in Monze. Betts unstintingly captures the screams of pain and anguish magically relieved by an a capella chorus that proudly sings about sunshine in gritty four-part harmony. (The original score by David Della Santa and Daniel Miller—most notably the cello writing—adds much to the stark mood and pace even as Kathryn Westergaard’s camera offers the eye many moments of natural beauty that seem so at odds with the surrounding sadness: cutting back and forth between Abarcon smoking in the fields while Mutinta fends her way through another childbirth speaks volumes.)
A kernel of hope that blossoms into slightly overdone drama (compared with the ever-honest encounters captured as the principals try to understand each other and their fates) comes in the form of Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission. A strict adherence to the PMCT regimen seems the only hope for the newborn children of positive women to begin life “normally.”
By journey’s end, hope does fill the air—all but erasing the preventable acts and situations that continue to wreak havoc as transmission rates fail to go the way of chicken pox around the globe.
Seeing the local, all-male council in action (Prime Minister Patrick Nchimanya serves as spokesperson) reminds one and all that when men are left to their own devices, calamities such as this epidemic become fodder for jokes and half-hearted remedies. Where is the voice of motherly love to temper their decisions that Abarcon so pathetically craves? JWR