B'ella, a feature by Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera, Malawi A Coming-of-Age, High School Drama with a Touch of Femininity
When Malawian director, Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera, decided to make his movie debut B'ella he certainly had in mind the feminine struggle in the African continent. He decided to enter the very intricate and complex world of high school girls, and focused on a teenage Malawian girl; B'ella (Vinjeru Kamanga), who lived in Chazunda on the outskirts of Blantyre in Malawi. Using her as his protagonist, Nkhonjera built a world around her comprised of family, friends and lovers. Unfortunately, the main character had no growth process to go through. Her journey and struggle weren't explored in a realistic way. Like her dreamy and romantic nature, her character was also handled romantically as a one dimensional character with a series of one dimensional, clichéd characters revolving around her aimlessly. Friends are always listening to B'ella to see what she has to say, villains are trying to hurt her, lovers come and go out of her life. What could've been very rich material for personal growth, has turned into a mellow drama that dealt with too many issues for its own good.
Nkhonjera handled taboo subjects in the African society, for which he should be applauded but he dealt with the topics from the surface and in a rather preachy way. Another point which should be taken into consideration is the categorization and stereotyping of women in B'ella: girls are either good "virgins" or bad "sluts". The girl who gets AIDS dies in the end. Despite the ambitious and somehow courageous treading on the forbidden abortion grounds, the movie ruined its extra cookie in favor of giving us a preachy, sort-of religious handling of such a critical topic.
However, for a debut, B'ella is rather a fine tale that used its power from the diversity of its female characters and how they defied beauty stereotypes. In one swift yet visually beautiful scene, the "bad" girl, Kalilole, goes through a transformation that empowers women in the direction of sticking to nationality and defying beauty stereotypes, but just as that high point is presented, a wave of female stereotyping and molding into a stagnant idea of how women are supposed to "be" or "act" ruins the empowering moment.
Speaking from a technical point of view, B'ella suffers from some the low points of a debut project. The editing suffered from inconsistent rythm and rough cutting. The music is not in synch with the overall atmosphere of the movie, which could serve the movie in a way for being a rebellious idea. However, B'ella made use of the beautiful Malawian scenery and still deserves credit for entering the hidden yet enriched world of African women.
written by Jaylan Salah
This paper is part of the Workshop on Film Criticism, commissioned by the 4th Luxor African Film Festival, 16-22 March 2015, mentored by Thierno I. Dia, Africiné.