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Documentary Film

89min . color . 1:1,85 . Sony FS7

Venue: Dok Liepzig film festival (German competition)

In German, Portuguese, English, Zulu

A bittersweet, heartfelt debut feature from director Brenda Akele Jorde, The Homes We Carry explores a little-known chapter in Cold War geopolitical history. Using a single pan-generational family story as a lens, Jorde examines the lingering aftershocks of Communist East Germany’s dubious track record of recruiting migrant workers from socialist-friendly African “brother countries” to work as cheap labour. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the economic turbulence that followed German reunification, most of these foreign workers were suddenly surplus to requirement and unceremoniously sent home. Adding extra emotional drama to this sociopolitical history lesson, many visiting Africans had fallen in love with German women and started families with them, leaving behind children who they would not see again until years later.

World premiering at Dok Leipzig festival this week, Jorde’s film is not just about politics and economics, but also the psychological and cultural damage that these forces can inflict on families and on society as a whole. As an Afro-German herself, the director is interested in representation and identity, in degrees of blackness and different kinds of belonging. She probes these questions obliquely in a observational manner that never feels dry or didactic, always placing the personal before the political, and letting the overlap between the two speak for itself. An elegant lesson in empathy and light-touch storytelling, The Homes We Carry should draw plenty more festival offers after Leipzig, while its timely themes and tender tone will boost its chances for specialist art-house, TV and streaming slots.

The backdrop to The Homes We Carry is mostly laid out by Jorde sparingly, using vintage family photos as a recurring motif. In the 1980s, between 17,000 and 20,000 workers were invited to East Germany from war-torn Mozambique. They were lured by the promise of relatively high-wage, high-skill jobs that would theoretically equip them with valuable qualifications, savings and pensions, all designed to enrich their homeland in the long term. In reality, most were given jobs on big industrial and construction projects that had limited utility back in Africa. Eulidio, one of the key figures in Jorde’s film, worked in a nuclear plant, for example.

Adding insult to injury, when Eulidio and his fellow workers came back to Mozambique in the early 1990s, they discovered they had been robbed by their comrades in the workers paradise. Between 25 and 60 percent of their salary was withheld by the East German government, officially to be deposited into bank accounts for use when they returned home. In fact, this cash was stolen by the regime as a means to gain hard currency. Years later, when post-reunion Germany tried to settle this debt by underpaying the Mozambican government with 70 million Euros of development aid, corruption and theft swallowed most of the money.

With an extra twist of bitter irony, workers like Eulidio also found themselves ostracised on their return to Mozambique due to the perceived privileged status bestowed on them by their European training. There are complex, knotty tangles of postcolonial prejudice and intersectional resentment at play in this story. Facing poverty and unemployment at home, but unable to return to Germany, Eulidio became an economic migrant again, making a new life in South Africa.

Intertwined with Eulidio’s story is that of his daughter Sarah, a young Berlin native of mixed heritage. Raised by her white mother Ingrid after Eulidio was sent home, she shares her melancholy memories of growing up without a father, facing casual racism on the street, and never seeing anyone who looked like her at school. Sarah only met her father for the first time at 11. As she reached adulthood and began investigating her heritage, she travelled to Mozambique and found a warm welcome. It was the first place she ever felt attractive, she says, and the site of her first kiss. In a fascinating echo of her own family back story, Sarah met a young man there called Eduardo, and soon fell pregnant with her own daughter, the ridiculously cute Luana. History may not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.

Woven through The Homes We Carry is footage of the ritual weekly street protest in the Mozambican capital Maputo by the so-called “Madgermanes”, former contact workers who came back from East Germany three decades ago, and have been fighting ever since for unpaid wages and the chance to visit their lost families. Betrayed by both countries and both systems, capitalism and communism, these defiant veterans have backing from NGOs, plus academic and religious groups in Germany, but still their words fall on deaf ears. “We already have grey hair and nobody wants to know us,” one laments.

Much of this deeper background detail is missing from The Homes We Carry, which under-explains the fascinating macro context in favour of a more micro, intimate, lyrical approach. Allowing impressionistic vignettes and conversational fragments to do most of the narrative work, Jorde follows Sarah from Berlin to Maputo, then to Springs in South Africa, switching smoothly between German and Portuguese as she attempts to weave together the scattered plot-lines of her life, her family and her identity. Her extended visits with Eulidio, Eduardo and multiple cousins are mostly joyful, full of food and music, sunshine and affection, but inevitably tinged with sadness and loss.

A sweet soundtrack of fragrant, airy Afro-Brazilian ballads by Mozambican singer Lenna Bahule adds to this underlying sense of saudade, that wonderful Portuguese word for an aching emotional absence. And yet Jorde never allows this charming multi-character study to veer into tragedy, concluding instead on a gently inspirational note as Sarah finally learns to view her mixed-heritage roots as a rare gift to be cherished and celebrated.

- The Film Verdict

Director, screenwriter: Brenda Akele Jorde
Co-directors: David-Simon Groß, Malte Wandel
Producers: Florian Schewe, Miriam Henze
Cinematography: David-Simon Groß
Editing: Laura Espinel
Music: Lenna Bahule
Production company, world sales: Film Five GmbH (Germany)




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