Atang and Dineo when the first meet at the funeral.
Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba)

The Forgotten Kingdom is well worth seeing and raises several interesting questions. South Africa is the portal through which American, European and Indian filmmakers get to access to the natural beauty, the local cultures and the industrial infrastructure of ‘African’ film production. The success of film agencies in attracting inward investment doesn’t yet seem to have produced the development of a thriving locally-focused South African filmmaking – or at least the films that are made rarely make it into the international film market. This issue is briefly discussed in The Global Film Book  in Chapter 8 and is explored via a handful of films on this site.

Mainly, what we get to see in the UK are films financed from the US, UK or other European industries which make films featuring African stories but often with US/UK stars and creative teams. The Forgotten Kingdom is an American-financed film made by an American writer-director with some South African creative talent. Properly speaking it is also a Lesotho film shot primarily in that country using many local performers, most of whom had no previous experience. The production harks back to the period of ‘development films’ – a form of filmmaking in Anglophone Africa that has been funded by various public sector and charities/trusts seeking to represent various social issues in a broadly educational context. In this case part of the funding comes from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). The bulk of the money comes from independent companies in the US and South Africa with support from the Independent Film Project.

This process of ‘Western’ filmmakers making authentic local films in Southern Africa can produce excellent films that enable local talents to shine. On this blog and on The Case for Global Film there are several examples of such films in which a filmmaker immerses himself/herself in local culture and local storytelling and finds a suitable cast and locations. These films are quite different from the Hollywood mainstream films like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009) with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. The writer-director of The Forgotten Kingdom is Andrew Mudge who first visited Lesotho in 2006 and spent several months there learning about local languages and local cultures.

Lesotho is a land-locked country, a mountainous enclave in South Eastern South Africa. It’s home to some 2 million people most of whom live in rural areas and the major employment is in textile factories (which produce export goods including many American clothing brands). Many people leave Lesotho for work in South Africa. Lesotho has a serious HIV/AIDS problem and both the impact of this and the impact of absent fathers plays a role in the film narrative. Atang (‘Joseph’) is a young man living in Johannesburg when he learns that his father, from whom he is estranged, is sick in a nearby township. He arrives too late. His father is dead and his son must take the body back to Lesotho where it will be buried next to that of his mother. This ritual – workers and AIDs victims returning for burial is a common occurrence according to the film’s Press Notes. Atang finds himself back ‘home’ after 15 years and feels out of place until he meets Dineo, a woman from his schooldays who is now a teacher but who has not married. She lives with her father and younger sister who has AIDS and needs nursing. Circumstances then force Atang and Dineo apart and he must make a difficult journey through the mountains to find her again, helped by a mysterious orphan boy.

The mysterious orphan boy (played by Lebohang Ntsane)
The mysterious orphan boy (played by Lebohang Ntsane)

So, here is an American independent film made in Lesotho and Johannesburg with a small budget and four professional actors, two recognisable from Tsotsi (2002), Zenzo Ngqobe as Atang and Jerry Mofokeng as Dineo’s father. The relatively inexperienced Nozipho Nkelemba is Dineo and the boy is one of the untrained actors, Lebohang Ntsane. I thought they all performed well. Mudge required them to use Sotho in the Lesotho sequences and ‘Tsotsitaal’ or township slang in the Jo’burg scenes. Overall there is relatively little dialogue and it is mostly quite straightforward. Much of the narrative is visual, captured by DoP Carlos Carvalho who trained in Port Elizabeth and previously worked on advertising and public service films. Lesotho offers wonderful landscapes and the possibilities of ‘magic hour’ shooting to enhance the feeling of being in a special place. Mudge selected a fast-cutting frenetic style for the early Jo’burg scenes and then switched to more measured longer takes and wide shots for the Lesotho scenes. The music score by Robert Miller is sufficiently low-key to match and not overwhelm the visuals and is augmented by popular local songs and choral singing. I recognised the Hugh Masekela song ‘Stimela’ – about the coal train that brings workers from other parts of Southern Africa (including Lesotho) to the mines.

What is most effective about the film for me is the mixture of the sociological and the ‘magical’ in the narrative. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just point out that Andrew Mudge uses those two important elements of Lesotho society – migration for work and the impact of AIDS – alongside scenes where Atang re-discovers his culture aided by the orphan boy. I tend to agree with the reviewer who questioned whether this boy was ‘real’ or a figment of Atang’s imagination. He certainly acts as a catalyst for Atang’s re-discovery of his culture.

Any qualms that I had before the screening that this would be a ‘worthy’ film but possibly lacking in authenticity were not realised. I think the film works and there is a wealth of material on the official website which explains the production process, including a detailed blog documenting the director’s research and preparation. I was pleased to see that the film had its ‘royal premiere’ in the Lesotho capital, Maseru (in the only cinema) in front of King Letsie III , but also that it played on mobile screens in many of the rural districts where it had been shot. It played many American Film Festivals in 2013/14 and went on release in South Africa in 2014 but has taken some time to reach the UK and Ireland. It is only playing in the UK and Ireland at selected cinemas so go to the official website to find venues.

South African TV News Item:

The trailer from the Official Website: