(Democratic Republic of Congo 2022; Dir: Maisha Maene)


Yesterday’s future

review by Jason Todd


original title: Mulika

length: 14

year of production: 2022

country of production: Democratic Republic of Congo

director: Maisha Maene

production: Leon Nelki

director of photography: TD Jack Muhindo

editing: Leon Nelki

cast: Sefu Weber-Kal, Faustin Biyoga, Ibrahim Twaha, Sarah Bahati

festivals: Locarno 2022, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur 2022, RIDM 2022, Sundance 2023, Clermont-Ferrand 2023, Tampere Film Festival 2023

© images: 'Mulika' (Maisha Maene)

‘Afrofuturism’, a term originally coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay ‘Black to the Future’ [1], is one cinephiles, curators and scholars alike are accustomed to use when describing any piece of art created by Black artists depicting an alternate Black presence. This trend, most commonly observed in science fiction, has often been synonymous with artists actively trying to break the boundaries of reality – which was understandably regarded as a biased and unfit framework to let Black creativity express itself.

But what about ‘Africanfuturism’? [2] Representing a notable subgenre of this cultural aesthetic, it’s a term that has gained solid ground since being coined by Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okorafor in 2019 and it is worth exploring in the context of this review. You see, Mark Dery is a white critic, and even if his contribution to cultural Black studies has been widely recognized as influential, it was deemed necessary to revisit the term ‘Afrofuturism’ to allow a more African-centrist definition to thrive as opposed to one that is still deeply rooted in America and its Western reality.

‘Mulika’, a short film made by Congolese filmmaker Maisha Maene, is a perfect example of Africanfuturism thanks to its ability to reconnect local African heritage to the typical optimism inherent to Black contemporary sci-fi tales. Partially shot on the side of Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano, as well as in the streets of its nearby city Goma, it follows the footsteps of a mysterious ‘afronaut’ whose spacecraft crashed inside a mining crater. As the faceless figure slowly investigates its surroundings, dressed in a daringly DIY spacesuit made of computer scraps and crushed bottle caps, his voice can be heard offscreen, speaking directly to the audience. “I’m a singular being like you,” it says in French, using the singular version of ‘you’, as opposed to the collective ‘you’. A deliberate choice that wishes to establish a direct connection with every member of the audience individually. Such a perspective is not trivial. Unlike more traditional detached narrators, this one appears to be especially welcoming and friendly despite its alien attire. Furthermore, its hospitality is even directly reflected in the real people he encounters in the streets of Goma.

Indeed, like some of his contemporaries (Baloji for example), Maene does not hesitate to put his works of fiction right into the fabric of reality. In some raw documentary-style sequences, a handheld camera follows the protagonist strolling in the streets of Goma while interacting with its people. Taking advantage of Mount Nyiragongo’s latest eruption in 2021 and the dried lava rivers it spilled into the city, these scenes offer a unique, almost surreal, look at the citizen’s warmth towards the protagonist. “He’s a human like me,” says a smiling man while tapping his shoulder like he’s known him forever: “My man, he’s cool”. On another occasion, a group of kids run around the afronaut and one of them yells: "The robot has come back to Goma!” The excitement he brings to his surroundings is palpable and it’s a feeling that is kept on screen even when the film plunges back into its scripted scenes.

According to the voice-over, the protagonist is indeed a human, though made of Niobium (a rare chemical element) and perhaps from the future. As another man explains to a curious bystander, the astronaut is on a mission to save humanity from “the world’s vultures who transformed [Africa] into a hell on earth”. As stated numerous times during the course of the film, the protagonist has evidently a keen interest in giving hope to his people in order to eventually decolonize mineral exploitation in Congo, especially given how the local population unsurprisingly does not benefit from the riches of its soil. Though, while the protagonist's quest does acknowledge the harsh reality of post-colonialism and the dire consequences it had on African people in the past decades, his hope for a better future is claimed with such confidence and stoicism that such a positive outcome appears almost objectively unavoidable. The unflinching protagonist, thanks to the support of his fellow Congolesi, will succeed in claiming back their rights from the hands of the West, and locals will benefit from the soil they live on someday, because such is the tale of Mulika.

This confidence is partly attributable to the fact that, in the second half of the film, the protagonist receives the blessing of the region’s ancestors, an unbreakable spell of immense power, as he finally chooses to take root alongside the shores of Lake Kivu, nearby Goma, drawing strength from the spirits of all of Congo. Indeed, during the short’s last few scenes, when the protagonist finally removes his helmet, an older man dressed in traditional clothing – a priest perhaps – tells him: “If today is the past of tomorrow, we can change tomorrow, and if today is the future of yesterday, we are already in the future.” These words, delivered as if they were an incantation, are to be interpreted as a call to action. The protagonist, a futuristic man taking roots in the present, has now combined the power of his ancestors’ spirits with the optimism of his people’s dreams – and in such a position, he is deemed to be unstoppable in his quest.

As reflected by the protagonist’s gleamy spacesuit casting light upon his surroundings in the dead of night, Mulika stands for ‘illuminate, light up’ in Swahili, East Congo’s lingua franca. When interviewed by Mark Dery in the 1990s, American writer Greg Tate once said about Afrofuturism that “most science-fiction tales dramatically deal with how the individual contends with alienating and dislocating societies and circumstances – and that pretty much sums up the mass experience of black people (sic) in post-slavery 20th century” [3]. Even though such statement remains true to this day, I find it particularly fascinating to see how Maisha Maene inverted the trend (‘a stranger in a strange land’) and decided instead to confront his alienated character to a friendly and inviting environment, leading him to embrace the local culture and, in a cathartic ending, submerge himself completely in Goma’s landscape. “I am my ancestor’s wildest dream,” he says. “I am the past and the future”.

[1] Mark Dery, "Black to the future", 1993
[2] Hope Wabuke, "Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and the Language of Black Speculative Literature", 2020
[3] "Introducing Afrofuturism", Criterion Channel.