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BERLINALE 2024 Berlinale Special

Recensione: The Empty Grave

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- BERLINALE 2024: Il documentario di Agnes Lisa Wegner e Cece Mlay segue le famiglie tanzaniane che cercano di recuperare i resti dei loro avi, uccisi dai colonizzatori tedeschi

Recensione: The Empty Grave

Questo articolo è disponibile in inglese.

The idea of western countries returning the art and remains they took from their former colonies has become more mainstream in recent years, as part of conversations around restorative justice. The concept seems simple enough, chiefly a matter of shipping items usually kept in museums and archives back to where they were found. The Empty Grave [+leggi anche:
intervista: Agnes Lisa Wegner e Cece M…
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, directed by Agnes Lisa Wegner and Cece Mlay, shows through the story of two Tanzanian families trying to recover the remains of their ancestors that many obstacles in fact stand in the way of such long-overdue acts of justice. The documentary had its premiere in the Berlinale Special section of this year’s Berlinale.

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Shot and put together in a conventional style, the film introduces its main characters in a polite, unobtrusive way, positioning itself as little more than a document of their own work and research. As such, The Empty Grave isn’t very exciting filmmaking but its goal — and it is a worthy one — is instead to highlight the work done not by scholars and museum archivists, who tend to be Western, funded, and therefore more visible, but by the living relatives of these stolen remains.

John Makarius Mbano is the film’s charismatic lead protagonist, tasked by his family to continue the work they have, in fact, been doing ceaselessly all these years: looking for the head of Songea Mbano, one of the leaders of the Majimaji resistance against German occupation. Although he was executed and buried in Tanzania, his head was exhumed and sent to Germany for racist “scientific” study. Even through the film’s rather conventional, emotionally muted TV aesthetic, the lasting pain felt by John and his older relatives is palpable, the scars of a massacre that took place over a century ago still fresh, in large part because Songea Mbano could never be grieved for properly. Although there is a historical and scientific angle to John’s research, it remains a very personal matter: when he visits the place where his ancestor was reportedly hanged, John says through tears that he would like to leave.

John and his wife Cesilia frequently talk with each other about the emotions they feel throughout their journey — mostly, a sense of overwhelming sadness. Juxtaposed to their investigation is another quest, led by an angrier character: born in Tanzania but living in Germany for 40 years, Mnyaka Sururu Mboro is already engaged in the fight to recover his ancestors’ remains from German museums and archives when we meet him. With the help of archivist Konradin Kunze, Mboro makes a stunning discovery about the remains of Mangi Lobulu Kaaya, a chief from the North of Tanzania, who was also executed by the German colonial army over a hundred years ago.

What becomes clear through both stories is that stalling these processes of restitution, besides the masses of time needed for research, is the fact that in many cases, the living relatives in Tanzania are not included in said processes. With everything that John’s family, or the Kaaya family, know about their murdered ancestor, this seems not just a glaring but a suspicious error. That those families must make the effort to reach out themselves to the authorities, in Tanzania but especially in Germany, is shocking. Whether it is for the sake of agreeableness, or to underline the great shame that several German subjects bring up throughout the film, the filmmakers adopt a genial and conciliatory tone that smooths over much of this frustration. But the image of families waiting generations for their slain elders to return home remains seared in the memory.

The Empty Grave was produced by Kurhaus Production and Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) from Germany, and Tanzania’s Kijiweni Productions.

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