Writer and Director: Ekwa Msangi
Family reunions never quite play out as you might expect; bringing people together after a long period apart can result in a greater strain than their absence ever did. Ekwe Msangi’s heartfelt drama Farewell Amor reunites an immigrant family in New York and, by examining each individual perspective in turn, explores the burden of transitioning to a new life.
Originally separated by Civil War in Angola and finally in the same country, Walter greets his erstwhile wife Esther and teenage daughter Sylvia at JFK after nearly two decades apart. As each member of the family tires to adjust to their new circumstances, the pressures of living together for the first time pull them in different directions.
Msangi’s depiction of clashing lives is an intimate portrait of three people who want the same but different things. In their own way, each is invested in being part of the family or embracing the American lifestyle they have been offered to build together. But what makes Farewell Amor so touching is the cost each person must pay, the feelings they must deny, subvert or ignore to make their new family viable.
Most affecting is Walter’s perspective, a hard-working taxi driver who has lived in America for 17 years and built an entirely different life for himself. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine’s performance is the heart of the film, a man desperately trying to do the right thing but stricken by feelings of heartbreak at having to sacrifice a relationship with nurse Linda that clearly means so much to him.
When Msangi films their final dance in a sweaty salsa club, the proximity of their bodies on the busy dance floor and the tenderness of their touch is powerfully evoked as they know this will be their last goodbye. Mwine’s is a performance filled with meaning and nuance, a rare complexity in patriarchal male figures trying to resolve a double life that fills the film with his empathetic struggle to be the man he needs to be for his family.
Daughter Sylvia’s perspective is just as insightful and as Msangi changes direction we see extended versions of conversations take place as a daughter learns to accept and even to like her long-absent father. Jayme Lawson most notably alters her performance depending on the point of view Msangi is presenting and while she is a quiet, almost sullen presence in Walter’s narrative, in her own she comes alive, an ordinary teenage girl distracted by music, friends, social media and establishing her place in the world.
In Sylvia’s narrative particularly there is a wider sense of the Americanisation of worldwide culture as the Angolan-born woman, raised in Tanzania, falls easily into the street dance culture of her new high school. These moments give Lawson a chance to display her movement skills as well as comfortably carrying her share of this entwined narrative.
Zainab Jah has by far the hardest job in making the religious Esther sympathetic, the intensity of her beliefs visibly oppressing her husband and child as the film unfolds. But Msangi saves her story until last because she is the hinge of the family and through her satisfaction will the success of their new life be secured.
Jah gives Esther a certainty that makes sense of the character’s principles and development, and while perhaps her conclusion becomes too yielding, her determination to hold her family together despite the confusion of moving country and discovering her husband is neither the man she knew or the man she dreamt about, unfolds well.
Bruce Francis Cole’s lovely cinematography mixes a stark style in the early section of the film that introduces warmer tones, first in the salsa club and later in Walter’s memories of Linda, which slowly infuse Msangi’s film as the branches of the family find common ground. Farwell Amor is an affecting and richly conceived debut from a filmmaker with a big future.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October