Year Released: 1993
Distributor: Media for Development International
Running Time: 103 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: Felicite, Flame, Everyone’s Child, Inshallah Dimanche
-Neria is streaming on YouTube.
-The review reflects the original English/Shona language version. There is also a Swahili dub available.
-Neria is directed by the late Zimbabwean filmmaker Godwin Mawuru. He actually has some records associated with his works. Neria is the highest-grossing Zimbabwean film in history and Mawuru created the first and longest running soap opera in his home country with Studio 263.
-Zimbabwe has a whopping total of sixteen official languages! They are Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan (Tsoa dialect), Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, Zimbabwean Sign Language, Sotho, Tonga (not the Polynesian country), Tswana, Venda, and Xhosa. How many countries do you know that are this multilingual?
-Neria is based on a story from another Zimbabwean director and author named Tsitsi Dangarembga. She has worked on the films Everyone’s Child and Growing Stronger. Dangarembga has written the book Nervous Conditions which is the first English language novel from a Zimbabwean woman.
-Connie, Neria’s friend/neighbor is played by Kubi Indi. The biggest movie she’s ever starred in even if it was a bit role was the James Bond movie Live and Let Die where she played a sales clerk.
-The late Oliver Mtukudzi was responsible for scoring as well as having a cameo role as Uncle Jethro. He’s a respected musician in Zimbabwe let alone Africa. He has collaborated with the likes of Joss Stone, Hugh Masekela, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The last one was interesting because they’ve re-recorded some of each other’s songs together including the Neria theme. Some of you might remember me mentioning Ladysmith Black Mambazo since one of the members is briefly interviewed in The Lion’s Share documentary. Also, the Jethro character’s band is called Jethro and the Black Spirits which directly references Mtukudzi’s backing band of the same name (okay, it’s Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits, but you get the point).
It’s been a while since I progressed in this goal, but I finally have another notch on this belt. This will be the second of five African countries featuring one of their films to review. First was Gabon with Operation Nguende and now I’m covering Zimbabwe! Sure, I’ve covered works from other Southern African nations such as South Africa, Namibia, and even Zambia, but not that country. I didn’t know anything about the cinema scene in Zimbabwe until I had a conversation with a former co-worker of mine who’s directly from that country. She talked about the country’s music and movies and she emphatically recommended a certain film to me while thanking me for knowing things about Africa. This conversation happened before I found out my maternal heritage, too. She also thought it was amazing when I told her I really liked Oliver Mtukudzi’s music (we’ll get to him later) especially with how much of a rock star he is in that country as well as doing great things for Zimbabwe. We even made a joke about calling their movie scene “Zollywood” like how Bollywood is to India or Nollywood is to Nigeria.
Hilarious in hindsight moment confirmed! I DID see the term Zollywood floating around the net. Okay, now let’s see how their best-selling film fares.
Neria is about a woman of the same name who’s from Warren Park which is a suburb of Harare (the capital and largest city). She has a loving husband and two children. They were getting things set up in their home with new furniture and a paint job on the outside. Things start out normally as they spend time in the city and also seeing extended family in the rural parts of the country. Neria stumbles across a mamba which she believes that misfortune is coming soon. It seemed to not be the case after she got paid from some wealthy Canadian tourists visiting at her textile job, but later that day, her husband Patrick is struck dead in a car accident as he was just riding her bike. She is conflicted with the modern life and with the huge traditions of her rural background. Phineas, her brother-in-law and her late husband’s older brother assumes the guardianship, finances, and a portion of the possessions which he insists is because of traditional customs, but he’s exploiting her widowed status and twisting said mores. Neria didn’t want to intervene due to her grief and also fears of violating traditions. She finds out that there can be elements in her favor, but she doesn’t know how to pull this off when these viewpoints on Zimbabwean culture collide.
This Zollywood film was a fascinating watch. I’m a sucker for neorealism and it certainly delivered most of the time. The scenes of the Harare suburbs, Harare proper, and the countryside were all interesting to see. All of them looked great and could pass as middle class neighborhoods if this was in America. I know it’s an older movie, but that could shatter some stereotypes in that regard. I did like the Neria character. While she’s called a strong woman, she doubts herself with different things like when it comes to the law and for being more assertive. The acting was surprisingly good. I don’t know how many of them were professional actors outside of Kubi Indi or Dominic Kanaventi who have a track record in film and TV, but they all emoted very well. One dark horse character is the lawyer Mr. Machacha who works with Neria. Okay, he did look too young to be a lawyer (probably 21 at most), but I liked how he cared for helping her, is naturally kind, takes no crap from anyone in the courtroom, and he actually practices law for the right reasons. A lawyer who actually isn’t some doubletalking or loophole abusing jerk in a nineties movie? Great googly moogly, if this happened in an American movie, people would put Mr Machacha as a textbook picture of an anti-cliche! In all serious, he was great despite his short screen time.
I seriously have to do a separate paragraph for this. I know I’m going to sound like such a fanboy for this part of the review, but Oliver Mtukudzi was amazing in his role as both a composer and as an actor. Let me tell you something: Tuku is one of my favorite musicians from Africa. My first exposure to him was because of my mom’s job during my teens at a fair trade shop where they had CDs from international artists. I got the Oliver Mtukudzi CD and it was amazing. He’s a talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist. If you think all African music sounds like soundtracks involving movies with fictional African superheroes or (god forbid) certain animated movie franchises that plagiarize old-school anime, then please slap yourself. The music from Tuku is just wonderful in all the parts of the movies with afropop, acoustic pieces, and acapella works. Mtukudzi can even act which was impressive as Jethro. The theme song of this movie is so beautiful. Here’s a live acoustic version of that song. Stop what you’re doing and listen to it.
You should also check out one of his songs outside of that soundtrack, too.
Okay, the fanboying part of the review ends now. By the way…Rest In Power, Tuku.
Neria has some shortcomings. The message got quite didactic. It’s a shame because a lot of the actors did speak it with conviction, but I wished they wouldn’t have made the morals overt which got preachy at times for me. The foreshadowing of Patrick dying was too obvious with the snake. While I didn’t know how he would die, I just knew it would happen. The sound effects did feel forced like the car crash sounds in the distance or how when Jethro starts playing the Neria theme song, it is clearly the original studio recording and there’s a noticeable amount of reverb despite singing it unplugged before it cuts to him playing a show with the full band. While they did a good job establishing the family in the beginning parts of the movie, I thought some of the relationship aspects with Neria and her kids was underdeveloped especially when the concept of guardianship was on the line in court during the finale. Phineas wasn’t a one-note character since he did have a decent relationship with his deceased brother, he’s still a cliche in itself: the evil uncle cliche. Okay, maybe more jerk uncle than straight up villainous and unlike multiple examples, he’s actually the older brother which is an inversion of popular and lesser-known examples. However, his greed was so obvious with him getting the furniture, money, and laughing when reading Neria’s letter. He’s not quite mustache-twirling levels of antagonism, but he still had overused character traits in that regard. I liked the realistic cinematography, but things got weird with Neria’s dreams and there was one nightmare scene that got a bit too bizarre as opposed to being scary which was the intent. Neria was made in the early 90s which really shows with the production, cars, and especially the fashion (one of the characters has a red puffy jacket for crying out loud!). Those aspects of the films weren’t so great.
This Zimbabwean film was a good, if not mind-blowing watch. The main characters were likable and the story was certainly serviceable. The scenery of Zimbabwe was great and it shows both major aspects of the nation there. Oliver Mtukudzi certainly brought his talents as much a musician and even as an actor which was a pleasant surprised. There were dated elements and the presentation of the story needed to not be so overt. Neria was a good entry into Zollywood.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like neorealism films.
Add 1 point if you’re an Oliver Mtukudzi fan.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want subtler storytelling.
Subtract 1-2 points if you need immaculate production.
-Very good acting
-Dated filming and unintentional period piece elements
-Story gets preachy
-Some production issues get cheesy
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Warning: Neria would probably get a PG rating if this were rated in America. There’s smoking and drinking in different scenes and some people get drunk briefly. Patrick dies, but his death is shown after the fact. There is some violence which does get to domestic abuse at times which can be uncomfortable. The concept of bride prices is mentioned in passing. The content wouldn’t make sense to most kids.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Neria is property of Media for International Development. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Media for International Development.