“Chilembwe is gone in your dust, stop lingering then: who will start another fire?,” asked Malawian Jack Mapanje at the end of his poem “Before the Chilembwe Tree.” Answering this call for revolution is a film titled from Mapanje’s challenge. “Who Will Start Another Fire” is composed of nine short films that weave a diverse tapestry with a running time of two hours. Showcasing different communities but with the common themes of love, tragedy, betrayal, family, and identity, Dedza Films and Kino Lorber’s collaboration sharpens the focus on film as a social force rather than mere aestheticism.
In their press release for the film, which aired in virtual cinemas on June 11, Dedza Films wrote, “These films reject the idea of art for art’s sake and do not exist in self-designed aesthetic vacuums. Their creation represents a necessary reckoning for their makers and so perhaps, too, their viewers. These are growing films by growing filmmakers, made for the future and the past, presented for you to experience for the first time now and again and again afterwards.”
The anthology opens with “Like Flying,” a film that teeters on the edge of innocence into awareness. A young girl, Ming Ming is torn between her mother’s overbearingness and her father’s infidelity. We experience the tension that she feels through the eyes of her imagination — processing the conflict between her mother, father, and a mistress. “Family Tree,” the next film in the series, plays on the same themes of “Like Flying.” When her husband experiences a fatal car accident, Nagawa’s mother attends a vigil with more visitors than expected. As Nagawa grapples with her father’s infidelity in an awkwardness that reaches out of the screen to seize you whole, a dramatic reckoning follows as Nagawa realizes the branches on her family tree extend a bit further than she thought. Both of these films imbue a sense of true confusion of a child thrust suddenly into very adult realities.
“Troublemaker” takes the discussion of family life to the generational level in a commentary on war and childhood ignorance. Set in Nigeria, a troublesome boy, Obi stirs up conflict in his community with a pack of firecrackers and an unfiltered imagination. In his indiscretion, he confronts possibly for the first time that consequences are not just our own. This supreme cinematic experience makes me feel in media res; the conflict and suspense presses from the screen directly influencing my heart rate.
Probably one of my favorites in the collection, “Polygraph” is an intense 20 minute film that provides a new perspective into the conditions of Palestinians in the conflict between the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Despite my attempts to understand the situation from people living through it like Mohammed El-Kurd (a Palestinian poet who went viral for his personal experiences living in Sheik Jarrah), “Polygraph” provides insight that I have never considered; a queer relationship between an Israeli and Palestinian woman that complicates as tensions surge. “The Lights Are On, No One’s Home” is a similarly compelling commentary, but here the focus is on trans identity and change. The themes of family roles, belonging, community merge into less of a film and more of a think piece. The placelessness and ambiguity of the protagonist plunges into you and leaves an indelible mark on your memory. On comparable themes of change is “By Way of Canarsie,” a docu-style film about a community considering the construction of a ferry on its main river. The film touches upon tradition, indigeneity, commodification of natural resources, and the changing face of the world. “By Way of Canarsie” evokes a warmness of familiarity as individual members of the community share why the river has significance to them.
A break from the other offerings in the series, “Slip” is a mind-bending stream of consciousness film. I was confused as I watched. I kept searching for when there would be some action, dialogue, something active rather than passive. It felt very philosophically absurd, like something of Camus or Sarte. Although it feels lacking in structure narratively, I appreciate the defiance of traditional media.
Above: Stillshot from “The Rose of Manilla” featured in the “Who Will Start Another Fire?” Scrapbook via Issuu
Revisiting the themes of acceptance is “The Rose of Manilla” a torturous film about pageantry and loss on the small island of Leyte. A Filipina woman, who is intended to be a replica of Imelda Marcos (former Filipino First Lady who stole billions via the government with her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, during his reign) relives the story of her youth as a contestant for “Miss Philippines.” Emotional and roiling, this film draws you in with its charming muted colors and deserts you with the painful price of beauty.
Another favorite of mine, “Not Black Enough” concludes the anthology. Acknowledging conflict in the Black community, this film adequately portrays the ongoing debate on what it means to be Black. Paired with the haunting image of minstrel shows, “Not Black Enough” reaches into the past and reflects on the present condition of Blackness in America. One unforgettable scene that I am still contemplating is when in the eyes of a police officer, all of the Black characters turn into shooting targets. All-in-all, the segment provides a replete diagnosis of Blackness in the 21st century and the competing ideas of what is and is not Black.
Watching “Who Will Start Another Fire” is like being torn asunder by a tsunami of emotions. It makes you feel like something is missing from the content that you watch daily. It is a breath of fresh air to anyone seeking refuge from outplayed tropes. New stories, new storytellers guarantee new perspectives in film. Altogether, the films in this collection create a visage the past, present and future that will remain with me for a long time to come.
Within the last few weeks, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” “In the Heights,” and “Cruella” have had “blockbuster” theatre openings. This semblance of normality, however small, stimulates a collective relief for movie goers. But what will this mean for indie films and directors that thrived via streaming over the past year? Closing theaters gave filmmakers who don’t have the access to the big screen an opportunity to tap into new audiences. I hope we can continue to uplift fresh cinematic expressions like “Who Will Start Another Fire” as the world emerges lazily from quarantine.