With most of 2020’s biggest blockbusters being pushed off the release slate, film festivals and independent films have never been so crucial to the industry’s survival as they have this year. One film that has taken the festival circuit by storm is Farewell Amor, the outstanding feature debut from Tanzanian-American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi, which tells the story of a long-awaited family reunion from three different perspectives.
After living alone in New York City for 17 years, Angolan taxi driver Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is finally reunited with his wife Esther (Zainab Jah), and his teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson, an impressive newcomer soon appearing in The Batman) who have left their home in Tanzania to live with him in the States. It’s an amiable reunion tinged with apprehension, as Esther and Sylvia try to adapt to a new life in a foreign culture and Walter is forced to reconcile his past and present while learning how to become a husband and father again. But living together under the roof of Walter’s modest apartment soon proves a challenge as tensions begin to rise and secrets are revealed.
They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, but Walter and Esther’s relationship has undoubtedly fizzled out during their 17 years apart. Both have adapted to new lifestyles —Esther has developed a strong devotion to Christianity and Walter has adjusted to the American way of life— which creates some cultural conflict between them as they attempt to respect each other’s wishes and get along. Tee-total Esther baulks at Walter’s suggestion that they open a celebratory bottle of wine one night, while Walter himself is taken aback by the religious adornments that his wife has hung around the flat.
Following advice from her church back home, Esther tries to rekindle their romance but her husband is more reluctant. Although he still cares for his wife, Walter is reeling from his break-up with Linda (Nana Mensah), a nurse he had a secret relationship with while his family were living in Tanzania. Although on paper this might make Walter seem like the bad guy, he’s never portrayed as such on screen. Thanks to Msangi’s writing and direction, and Mwine’s stirring performance, it’s easy to sympathise with him as he tries to adjust and do the best by his family.
Likewise, while Esther and Sylvia also have their own flaws, you can’t help but feel for them as they fight their individual battles. This proves more difficult with Esther, whose traditional values and strictness make her harder to warm to, but Jah evokes empathy for the character through her compelling performance. The film is perfectly divided into three parts, with one act dedicated to each character, giving an equal amount of insight into their thoughts and feelings. Although some may find one character easier to empathise with over another, Msangi makes sure that it’s an even playing field in terms of how they’re portrayed: no character is treated better or worse than another. And Bruce Francis Cole’s cinematography —full of captivating, intimate close-ups— makes the story feel all the more personal.
It feels significant that the film is set in January 2009 (the month and year of Barack Obama’s first inauguration) as indicated by the calendar hanging in Walter’s apartment. Despite the feelings of hope and optimism that Obama’s presidency brought, it didn’t cure the evils of racism and xenophobia that pervaded —and continue to pervade— the country. While Esther is warmly welcomed by her free-spirited neighbour Nzingha (Joie Lee, a real scene-stealer) who —much to Esther’s bemusement— affectionately calls her ‘sis’ and ‘queen’, Sylvia bears the brunt of lingering anti-immigrant attitudes at school and on the street. And Walter is eager to warn his daughter of the prejudice and discrimination she may face. “This country is very hard for Black people, especially foreigners,” he tells her, “you always have to carry yourself in such a way so that white people don’t feel threatened.”
Walter’s respite from the kind of stifling, guarded existence he has experienced comes in the form of dance; the only place he feels he can really be himself. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree here, as Sylvia is also passionate about dancing and dreams of making a career out of it, despite her mother’s expectation that she will become the first doctor in the family. Although Sylvia struggles to open up to her estranged father in the beginning, over time they become close through their shared love of dance, and the slow development of their relationship is beautiful and heart-warming to watch.
It’s in the dance scenes —and in the film’s music— that the African influences really shine through. Walter frequents a local dance bar to practice Kizomba, a popular Latin-style couple dance emerging from Angola in the 1980s, while Sylvia’s preferred style is Kuduro, an up-tempo Angolan dance with its origins in African electronic music. Msangi blends these aspects in perfectly with the New York setting, making the entire film an authentic and culturally rich melting pot.
Confidently and masterfully crafted, Farewell Amor is a stunning feature debut that undoubtedly secures Ekwa Msangi as one of the most talented up-and-coming filmmakers in the industry right now.
Farewell Amor is out in select cinemas and on VOD from December 11th
by Holly Weaver