Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor is an immigrant drama about coming to terms with a family member who’s now a stranger
Farewell Amor made me wonder about the marriages and separations we are more familiar with.
It’s the waiting area at John F Kennedy International Airport, and our eyes are drawn to a man holding a white name card. There are others, of course: people crossing the frame in front of this man, wheeling their luggage. And behind him, there are others waiting. But our eyes settle on this man holding a sign, because he’s right in front and that name card makes us think the people he’s waiting for are the people who’ll become part of this story. But suddenly, there’s movement from someone else, from behind. This other man walks past the man with the name card, steps in front, and greets two passengers. He’s Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), an Angolan refugee who drives a cab in New York.
This history — that he’s from someplace torn apart by a civil war, that he fled, that he’s been trying for 17 years to get his wife and daughter over to the US, that he’s finally succeeding in this scene that opens Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor — means nothing to New York. To the city, Walter is as “invisible” a presence as he was, until now, at the airport. Later, he’ll tell his daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) that this country is hard for black people, especially foreigners. “You have to carry yourself a certain way so that white people don’t feel threatened.” It’s only when he dances he feels he’s being himself. The daughter has inherited his dancing genes.
The people Walter receives in that opening scene are Sylvia and her mother, Esther (Zainab Jah). After a sort-of prologue that establishes the reunited family’s routine, Farewell Amor divides itself into three chapters — “Walter”, “Sylvia”, and “Esther” — to examine their situation through the points of view of these three people. Sylvia’s chapter is the most conventional, because it’s the story of a typical teenager. “Her job is to annoy us,” Walter tells Esther when she gets exasperated by Sylvia’s antics and also by her shiny boots. “All the kids in your school will think Africans are so tacky,” the mother sighs.
What people think is important to Esther. As Walter drives them home from the airport, she tells Sylvia that they have to practice speaking English more. What God thinks is important to Esther, too. Walter lives in a small apartment in a ‘hood, and Sylvia has to make do with the living room, around which Walter has put up sheets, for privacy. He jokes that maybe she’ll get her own place, like kids in the US. Esther quickly shuts the idea down. “First, we live as a family, as God intended it.”
Esther’s faith is the most touching part of Farewell Amor, which is the director’s debut feature. (It made its world premiere in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.) On the surface, Esther is the “annoyingly strict parent” trope. She won’t let Sylvia dance. She frowns when Sylvia brings home a boy. (“I will not lose my daughter to this country,” she fumes quietly.) When they sit down for dinner, she stops Walter from reaching for food: they have to say grace first. When Walter suggests a Sunday outing so they can get to know each other better (they have been apart for 17 years, after all), she wants to go to church first. And in a very touching scene, when Walter walks into their bedroom the first night after Esther and Sylvia arrive, he finds Esther naked. She is waiting to make love to him.
This scene is touching not because — as Esther says — she has not been with another man during this long time apart. It’s not because Walter, in these years, has been living with another woman. It’s because of why she wants to make love that very night, to a man who’s practically a stranger. “My pastor said we must focus on familiarising ourselves in spirit and flesh in order to rebuild our family.” There’s something chillingly mechanical about Esther at this moment, like a robot that’s been “programmed”, like someone who’s been brainwashed by a cult. Wouldn’t she want to simply hold hands with her stranger-husband, first?
But then we see why Esther became this way. There’s the hint that she was a very different person earlier. When Walter tells Sylvia that he and Esther used to dance a lot (“all night long”) before she was born and even a little after, the girl seems surprised. (Sylvia was born during the civil war, and Walter left soon after.) But later, Esther and Sylvia moved to Tanzania, and Esther joined a church because she wanted a sense of community. And then, as Sylvia says, she got “really serious”.
That’s the first time we think of what it must have been like for Esther, waiting — and waiting, and waiting — to join a husband who’s thousands of miles away. She knows it’s not his fault that they had to spend so many years apart. The immigration rules aren’t easy, and the process takes its time. But it was probably easier for her to slowly start believing that it was all “God’s plan”. This way, she wouldn’t hate Walter. (Even later, when she finds out about Walter’s infidelity, she says he is the man God has given her and there has to be a reason.) Plus, she’d find a reason to keep going after a war left her (and her people) devastated.
A lot of this is based on real life, as the Tanzanian-American director (she’s the child of immigrants herself) told Indiewire. Msangi’s uncle “came to the US from Tanzania in 1996 on a student visa, with every intention to bring her aunt. Twenty-four years later, they’re still apart, applying for visas that are denied, but hopeful that they will reunite one day. The film imagines a scenario in which that happens.”
Farewell Amor — “amor” is the affectionate term by which Esther addresses Walter — made me wonder about the marriages and separations we are more familiar with. Take away the civil war, and Walter’s situation is not very different from that of the Indians who go to the Gulf to work. They keep sending money back home but they don’t have a “family life”, as such. Sylvia says her friends back in Africa think she has a fabulous life because she’s in the US, and I’m sure the fact that “your dad is in the Gulf” adds a similar sheen to how some children are perceived. But like Sylvia, only they know what it’s like.
Farewell Amor is streaming on MUBI.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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