Early on in writer-director Ivan Herrera’s inconspicuously layered “Bantú Mama,” the Dominican Republic’s current Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film, a brief display of joyful magical realism encapsulates the film’s subtle thesis of diasporic kinship.
With big smiles painted on their faces, three Afro-Dominican siblings — Cuki (Euris Javiel), T.I.N.A (Scarlet Reyes), and $hulo (Arturo Perez) — jump up and down alongside an adult Afropean woman from France, Emma (Clarisse Albrecht), as if they were part of the Maasai people from Kenya. Suddenly, the clothes Cuki wears transform into the traditional attire and accessories of said tribe. For an instant, he and the Maasai are one and the same.
The moody drama speaks of the inextricable links between Africa and the Caribbean without ever discussing it in academic terms but, instead, illustrating the bond with everyday exchanges between the unexpected visitor from abroad and the locals. For example, one morning the makeshift family shares a plate of fritos verdes or tostones, which reminds Emma of aloko, a West African dish also made with plantains.
The recognition of their similarities across oceans surprises Cuki, the youngest, who struggles to see how Emma can be French but still identify with her Bantú heritage. But for T.I.N.A, a self-assured teenager, there are no doubts that Emma fit in with them.
Emma is not their mother — at least not biologically. But she rapidly assumes a maternal role in this household without adult supervision. She cooks for them and helps Cuki with his homework. But more significantly, she provides the kind of a reassurance and encouragement that only a loving parental figure can. By building their self-worth with simple affirmations, she teaches them to see themselves as more than their environment.
Arrested after an illicit business arrangement goes wrong, Emma lands with the three minors in the embattled El Capotillo district of Santo Domingo (the country’s capital) thanks to a serendipitous accident. Now her only chance of returning to her life in France is with the help of the trio of tacitly adopted children whose mother died while their father is in prison. But Herrera isn’t interested in putting forward just another tale of crime as a means of survival for disenfranchised young people in developing countries.
Though he sets his piece in a marginalized community — mostly populated, at least on screen, by Black Dominicans — he and cinematographer Sebastian Cabrera Chelin avoid sordid depictions. The concrete labyrinths of El Capotillo brim with life, whether it’s $hulo and his friends rapping or motorbikes pirouetting; people’s lives are not defined by suffering.
Through their handheld yet delicately lit conception, Cabrera Chelin’s frames pack a beguiling force in tandem with a haunting soundscape, which coat the narrative with an air of otherworldliness, almost as if implying that this encounter between Emma and the siblings was not merely coincidental but destined to happen and beyond their control.
Behind the camera, Albrecht serves as co-screenwriter, presumably lending the story her own lived experiences as a French-Cameroonian woman. As Emma, the actress gives a restrained performance. There’s undeniable warmth in how she interacts with the kids but also a distance that keeps her an enigma for them and for us. There are few references to her past back in Europe, but an open sea of possibility for her future. Still, the filmmaker could have added a bit more background info for Emma without losing her mysterious demeanor. For us to understand her decision even to be involved in drug trafficking would enrich her arc.
Herrera’s young actors operate with such a natural openness to this stranger in their home that it doesn’t take much for the viewer to believe they have embraced her fully. Reyes, who plays T.I.N.A, stands out among them for the mature matter-of-factness with which she demands a life-changing favor from Emma in exchange for her financial help so she can leave. The determination in the young performer’s eyes transmits both desperation and hope.
Just as surreptitiously under the surface, the filmmakers address the dehumanizing treatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, consequence of the history between the two former colonies that share the island of Hispaniola. The trio of kids immediately assumes that any French-speaking Black person is an undocumented Haitian national. At first, they think Emma is Haitian, and later immigration officers reach the same conclusion.
Within its succinct runtime, “Bantú Mama” conjures up a multitude of insightful points about the African diaspora and the ways in which the Western, white world has distanced them from their glorious past and, in turn, from a sense of belonging. Although at first they appear without context, Herrera and Albrecht include throughout the film shots of the Île de Gorée, an island off the coast of Senegal known as a key site in the Atlantic slave trade in centuries past, as if to say that perhaps home for this surrogate mother and her chosen kin is neither the Dominican Republic, nor France, but the African continent.
“Bantú Mama” premieres on Netflix Nov. 17.