Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005)

Director: Khalo Matabane

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I was having lunch with my 80-something Greek neighbor, who told me her story of coming to America. She was asked during her citizenship class if she was loyal to the United States or to Greece. Her answer was, “Greece is my mother. America is my mother-in-law. How can I choose?” I was reminded of this snippet of conversation after viewing Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon.

It was indeed a Sunday afternoon when Facets Cinematheque, again host to the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival in Chicago, screened this compelling and unique movie. Conversations, which has a fictional main character whose search for a woman results in documentary interviews with real people, manages to communicate the scope of the refugee experience beyond the numbing frame most of us are used to seeing and probably have learned to tune out—a refugee camp overrun with bloated-bellied children swarmed with flies and worried women with bony hands and faces. In doing so, it is possible for audiences to reconsider just what a refugee is and find a new, more engaged response.

Keniloe (Tony Kgoroge), a black South African poet living in Johannesburg, carries his favorite bench to a city park, reads the novel Links by Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, and tries to overcome his writer’s block to “make sense of the world.” Over several Sundays, Keniloe struggles, rain or shine, to unlock the door of perception. Before Keniloe takes notice, we are made aware of a black Muslim woman dressed in blue satin sitting in the same park, writing letters of inquiry to the Somali government about her missing mother. It is only after several Sundays that Keniloe goes over to her to ask who she is and why she comes to the conv%20fatima.jpgpark each week. The woman, Fatima (Fatima Hersi), relates her harrowing story of watching her young brother and father being shot dead before her eyes during the civil war in Somalia, being shot herself and left for dead, and waking up in a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. She repeats this story three times, tears running down her face, her hand pushing at her nose to clear it. How she ended up in South Africa is anyone’s guess. Keniloe is next seen sitting in a tree composing a poem about Fatima into his tape recorder. He wants the whole story, but Fatima does not return to the park.

He sets out to try to find her, feeling that the coincidence of reading a Somali writer and encountering a Somali woman who has experienced tragedy has great significance for him. However, as tracking Fatima down proves difficult (using the ineffectual approach of asking random people in the streets where Somalis live if they know her doesn’t help), the film shifts to a general exploration of the refugee experience. Keniloe decides he wants to understand the experience of seeing people killed or killing people. His wanderings through Johannesburg turn up some surprising stories.

We meet a Ugandan who fled his country 10 years before. He says he’d like to go back, but he has no family left—they’ve all been killed. We meet another Ugandan, a young woman who left when she was a child and has been living in South Africa for 20 years. Keniloe asks her if she considers herself South African. She hesitates to answer. Eventually she says that she does, but that she also feels Ugandan, moreso every year. It’s interesting to see this identity crisis play out much like an adopted child who wants to find his or her birth parents.

In a decayed underground garage, Keniloe meets with an entire family who relocated to Johannesburg from a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Several children silently flank the father, who does all the talking, while the mother keeps their toddler occupied in the background. When asked if living in a war zone their entire lives—including 30 years for the parents—has changed them, the father says, incredulous, how could it not.

A young white woman from Yugoslavia—or as she says, now the Union of Serbia and Montenegro—living in a Jo’burg slum is another refugee. She fled Sarajevo. When she walks the streets of Jo’burg at 2 in the morning, her friends are horrified. Her reply is that it is safe because there are no bombs falling and bodies in the streets. A refugee from the dictatorship of South Korean Conv-on-a-Sunday-Afternoon.gif president Park Chung-hee, whose English is immaculate after several years in New Jersey, says she doesn’t miss Korea at all and doesn’t intend to go back. Her bitterness over the oppression of women and university students, a dissident group to which she belonged, will keep her an exile for the foreseeable future.
Keniloe also encounters a former soldier from the Congo (formerly Zaire) who received a machete blow to the head before ordering his troops to gun down his assailants. He doesn’t even remember being shipped to South Africa, but he had refugee status forced upon him by the South African government for his own protection. He shows us the scar on his head beneath his red military beret.

Finally, through twin sisters, one of whom is named Fatima, Keniloe finally finds his Fatima. She lives with her husband and children like many residents of Jo’burg—in a house fortified with a barbed-wire-topped gate and burglar bars on every window. She won’t answer Keniloe’s knocks on the door, but comes to the window and talks through the glass. He tells her he has been looking for her to finish her story. She says she’s not interested in talking about it anymore and disappears behind the drapes. A nonplussed Keniloe stands outside as the film fades to black.

Conversations%201.jpgThis film has a street theatre quality to it. The lively byways of Johannesburg’s black district of Hillbrow, with their hair-weave, notions, and produce stands, are the scene of most of the interviews. The undoubtedly cheap, handheld equipment produces serviceable pictures enlivened by the surroundings as well as plenty of suspicious stares from people on the street. It doesn’t surprise anyone to learn that raids on illegal immigrants may be producing those stares; indeed, director Matabane takes us into a deportation center where defiant deportees sing that they’ll be back. Occasionally, as with the Palestinian family and the Congolese soldier, decaying surroundings are deliberately chosen as backdrops. Are we to suppose that all refugees live in substandard areas, or are these settings a reflection of the experiences these people have faced and still deal with, in reality or in memory, every day?

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon is a timely film for Americans and Europeans alike who are clashing over the status of illegal immigrants. It concentrates mainly on political refugees, but does not go so far as to entirely separate economic refugees who illegally reside in a country from foreign victims of war and civil rights abuses. It illustrates in very vivid terms that displacement is a universal problem that many Americans and Europeans view in racial terms. The fight over territory and legitimacy is often caused by war. When the people who are caught in the middle must flee for their lives, they find they must fight the same battle again. If they are lucky, like my Greek neighbor, they will find easy acceptance. If they are unlucky, they may be wanderers, in fact and in spirit, the rest of their lives. l

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