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Bongoland   D

Kibira Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Josiah Kibira
Writer: Josiah Kibira
Cast: Mukama Morandi, Laura Wangsness, Roger Kiluwa, Robert Kataraiya, Mindi Kasiga.

Review by Eric Beltmann

"He's not a terrorist, if that's what you mean! He's only a foreigner!"

Eight thousand miles is a long way to go for "the good life," but according to Bongoland, Josiah Kibira's regional drama about Juma, a Tanzanian immigrant in Minnesota, the journey alone doesn't guarantee success. That assertion is hardly groundbreaking -- characters have been kicked around by the American Dream since at least Fitzgerald and Sinclair -- yet Kibira, who couldn't land a decent job once he arrived in the Midwest despite holding an MBA earned in East Africa, seems uniquely qualified to position his movie as both window and mirror, a window for privileged Americans looking at the degradations suffered by many newcomers and a mirror for certain African émigrés. Neither audience is likely to profit much from Bongoland, though. This ineffectual account of one immigrant's emotional life is ponderous, one-dimensional, and rhetorically glum. It's as if Kibira appraised his own experiences and concluded that only the clichés were worth recapping.

So far Bongoland has played in only a few regional film festivals, and Kibira appears determined to take the film to Tanzania. Despite its Midwestern setting, much of the film is in Swahili, a language spoken by about 100 million people yet represented in less than 10 motion pictures, and while Kibira's efforts to reflect a neglected market are commendable, I think he errs by deliberately closing the blinds on other audiences. What's most frustrating about Bongoland is the way Kibira assumes no one else wants to peer through this particular window; throughout the film, the implied charge is that most Americans are genetically indifferent to the plight of African immigrants. It's regrettable when a filmmaker -- an artist beholden to the exchange of ideas -- doesn't even consider alternatives to that kind of xenophobic, us-versus-them thinking. In fact, in a recent e-mail Kibira explained that he believes "the subject matter covered is not something that is an issue for a typical person in this country." Apparently most Americans can't relate to a story about cultural suffocation, alienation, separation, and frustration.

As bounced checks, credit-card bills, eviction notices, and INS inquiries slowly inter him, Juma begins to question why he ever came to America in the first place. (As he eloquently puts it, "Life here sucks, man.") Buried deep within the primitive dialogue and dreadful acting, however, lies the interesting fact that there is no absolutely correct choice available to illegal aliens like Juma. At one point Juma is offered an entry-level bank job, only to lose it when the firm learns his immigration papers are not in order -- in a movie highly critical of U.S. immigration policies, Kibira's sharpest observation is that mainstream America is willing to look the other way for illegals that perform menial jobs, but stares with suspicious eyes at educated, highly skilled immigrants. I suspect Kibira's target audience will be sympathetic to his political purpose, but will they perceive that he has no progressive agenda to offer? Like his wet-noodle main character, the director merely responds to adversity and injustice with angry, sulking impatience. Kibira might remind you of Loach, Frears, or even Sayles, but Bongoland echoes their bark more than their bite.

Review published 05.27.2003.

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