That Sister There! by Michèle Solle, a review of the film “Sister Oyo” by Monique Mbeka Phoba
Cette soeur-là ! par Michèle Solle une critique du film “Soeur Oyo” de Monique Mbeka Phoba: http://clapnoir.org/spip.php?article1095
Source: clapnoir.org VERSION ORIGINALE EN FRANCAIS. Translated below from French by Beti Ellerson.
Belgian Congo, the 1950s: welcome to the world of Godelive, a seven-year-old girl sent far away from her family to receive a Catholic education by the Belgian sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, the only school in the country promoting the French language! A close-up of a pair of frightened eyes on a round face and a pair of scissors that overpowers the wild mane of hair: it is to subdue the rebellious nature.
First reading lesson: a very young nun dressed in white, Bible in hand, with a very thick Flemish accent, has the students read; Godelive is paralysed with shame, crushed under the mockery of the older Albertine, the ringleader who, responsible for helping her during recess, will make of her the official scapegoat.
In black and white, light and shadow: the little girl stumbles about like a blind person in this cruel world, hurt during each discovery, clinging to the enlighten nun, Sister Oyo (Sister Oyo in Lingala, which translates as, “that sister there”) who wears a white cornette and habit, her reputation and intentions irreproachable—but both in fact are at risk.
In colour: equatorial lushness, a chromatic explosion of dreams, in contrast to the tamed garden of colonial civilisation, and yet a snake prowls at the borders.
At the head of this experimental boarding school, whose purpose is to train the girls and future brides of the "evolved"—so named by the colonial regime—reigns the mother superior, who, in these exquisite surroundings, tyrannizes Astrid, the so blonde, so young, so idealistic nun and teacher of the religious order of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart.
When there are no rules of the game, the actions and behaviour of adults appear to be of even greater magnitude. Godelive opposes a surface passivity to the injustice that she feels, she flees; in her dreams she reunites with her grandmother, where she glimpses into a life peopled by guardian spirits.
At the same time she closely follows the white nun, discovering her secrets. One day at the announcement of the bishop’s arrival there is uproar in this little world. The girls learn a hymn, a gardener in charge of the flowers comes out of the shadows ... Everything is unhinged, the snake enters into the garden, the veneer cracks, life scores a few points, truths and fantasies crossfade, an unimaginable rapprochement of impulses. Victim of the utmost cruelty, Godelive does not sing the Canticorum Jubilo, but she has rediscovered the path of her people, that of the life more powerful than rules, that of freedom…
Monique Mbeka Phoba, Belgian filmmaker of Congolese origin, has devoted her career to making documentaries. For her first fiction, she adapts her own story that recounts her mother’s time at the Mboma Mbanza boarding school near Leopoldville.
What sparked this idea? Fred Zinneman’s film, The Nun's Story (1959), with Audrey Hepburn as a religious, struggling with her doubts while in a Congolese hospital... How could one deny the kinship between the Hollywood actress’s beauty and that of Sister Oyo’s Laura Verlinden?
The superb image captures the ambivalence of this universe, the young actresses are brilliantly directed, and the mastery of the narrative ellipsis immediately places this short 23 minute 45 second film in the big leagues.
One may have preferred allusion to explanation of the idea; there are situations that may be developed, characters to be accompanied, angles to explore... Thus, Monique Mbeka Phoba, having honed her brushes with this first fiction, is now preparing the long version. See you then!
Photo credit: Monique Mbeka Phoba
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