January 13, 2012 -- This earnest, low-key documentary film about a woman dealing with AIDS infection in the African nation of Zambia is a real slice of life. It gives the viewer a glimpse into a way of life that seems ancient by the standards of modern society, but it also shows how modern medicine is affecting people's lives in rural Africa.
The central character of this life and death drama is 28-year-old Mutinta Mweemba. Her life hasn't turned out the way she had hoped it would. She wanted a family and a nice husband. She got the family all right, but her husband, Abarcon Mweemba, lied to her when he said he was unmarried. He had two other wives. Mutinta would have left him, but her family was too poor to be able to afford to return the dowery of four cattle Abarcon had given them. Polygamy is legal in Zambia, so Mutinta, his third wife, was unable to leave him.
After Mutinta finds out she has the HIV virus that causes AIDS, she finds out that she is pregnant, even though she had been using birth control. She is dismayed and fears her child will be infected with HIV. But there is hope for the child. Mutinta participates in a Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) program. The program uses a combination of drug therapy and education to help prevent the transmission of the disease from Mutinta to her baby. It is a program that requires strict adherence to a specific regimen.
Meanwhile another of Abarcon's wives, Brenda, becomes seriously ill with AIDS and the other wife, Matilda, also becomes infected with HIV and also becomes pregnant. One of Abarcon's wives, Brenda, dies from the disease. Abarcon also has HIV, but he continues to have sex with other women. He doesn't seem to be ill, and is taking drugs to control the disease. His philandering ways result in arguments between him and Mutinta, who is now his eldest wife. At one point, he strikes her.
The film is structured in a way so that it builds to a climax, that is, when the family gets the news about whether or not Mutinta has been successful in her efforts to prevent her baby from being infected by the AIDS virus. There is also a similar report on the baby born to Abarcon's other surviving wife. At stake are a whole generation of people in Zambia and elsewhere in Africa.
Others in the film include Abarcon's elderly father, Moses, local and regional elders. Discussions among regional leaders about AIDS, including the steps taken by leaders to successfully reduce the rate of infection. Even though the leadership is tribal, its response to this crisis is not unsophisticated. It is also practical, emphasizing the promotion of sexual practices which are less promiscuous and the use of condoms, among other things. Such practical, frank approaches to the AIDS problem have had considerable success in some parts of Africa.
One of the best things about the film is the rich, full musical score by Daniel Miller and David Della Santa performed by an orchestra conducted by Christopher Guardino. An indication of how closely the film crew worked with its subjects on this film is suggested in the name Mutinta gave her baby girl, Maggie, probably named after Margaret “Maggie” Betts, the director of the film. The film features good cinematography, too, by Kathryn Westergaard.
The pace of the film is a bit slow and it meanders a bit too much, but it is provides what seems to be a real slice of African life. While Abarcon doesn't come off looking very good in this film, his practice of polygamy does have an advantage. When Brenda dies, Mutinta is able to care for her children. The other surprising thing is that while life is hard for the family, it isn't as hard as you might imagine. Of course, Abarcon seems to be better off than most. He has a fair number of cattle as well as productive farm land. Still, a lot of activity in the film seems to boil down to resting in the shade or sweeping dirt around on hard-packed ground. This film rates a C+.
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