While the Tanzanian film industry has offered different portrayals of Tanzanian womanhood over the years, there is still a general lack of curiosity about contemporary stories. What it currently means to be a woman in Dar, the expectations (those you have of yourself and those put upon you), and the way they shape our lives has barely been explored. And often the exploration has not been told with the specificity that would make audiences feel like their stories have been pulled from memory, before being stretched out on the big screen.
Directed by Seko Shamte, Binti is by no means exhaustive in the exploration of contemporary Tanzanian womanhood, and I’m not sure it should be expected to. What it does really well however, is reflect back at us four different kinds of recognisable women, going through four different kinds of recognisable struggles. You have, Tumaini (Bertha Robert); this steadfast woman who has to play daughter, entrepreneur, and sole provider all at once despite all the structural odds against her. You’ve got Angel (Magdalena Munisi) who finds herself tangled in an abusive relationship with a man that attempts to kill her; and then Stella (Helen Hartmann), whose desire and inability to conceive a child nearly drives her to insanity; and lastly, Rose (Godliver Gordon), a mother struggling to cater to a son with special needs, alongside her own career and personal development.
As the film’s tag-line It’s hard being imperfect reminds us, none of the four women are faultless- their predicaments lead them to making their fair share of mistakes. But also, that it’s not their fault that they are put in these predicaments to begin with. The quest to fulfil an arbitrary expectation of womanhood puts them in near-impossible positions. Through illuminating this dilemma, the film does a good job of subtly revealing the contradiction: what happens when these same expectations that burden us are also our heart’s desires?
The film also asks us to consider how much of a difference our material realities can make on the lives we have. Two girls, Tumaini and Angel go to school together and end up in very different circumstances. Two women go to the same private clinic, but while Stella is able to try and try again with less financial worry, Rose has no choice but to reckon with how expensive caring for her son is.
The lead up to Rose, performed so heartily by the powerhouse that is Godliver Gordon, choosing to take their son to stay with her mother is heartbreaking to say the least. But there is something to be said for a culture where care and community extends through generations. That motherhood is seen as a shared responsibility between the women in your lineage is such a compassionate (and realistic) way to share the accountability of raising children. It’s such an elegant embodiment of the saying “It takes a village.”
Of course, in the case of Binti, audiences will notice that it might not have had to get there if the husband, James (Jonas Mugabe) was willing to shoulder more responsibilities. A recurring theme in the film, and a common occurrence in real life, is that each woman is failed by the man in her life – and for Tumaini, by the man who chose not to be a part of her life.
Much of the film keeps you in this inward space- audiences are privier to the women’s internal battles. But it would be remiss not to mention the cruelty of the men’s treatment- and the range with which it can show up in the lives of women. It’s perhaps easier to name Ema’s (Yann Sow) actions as brutal, and the absent father of Tumaini as neglectful. With Ben (Alex Temu) and James, however, their actions are shrouded with a veil of me too-ness. It’s even tempting to want to understand that of course, they too share in the pain of their wives. But while they take any opportunity to hit pause and detach (and they do; we see James lie about a work commitment to skive taking care of his own son) the women in their lives have to continue to endure.
Each of the women cross paths at some point, which culminates in an ambitious sequence at the very end of the film. We see Rose step into a pivotal moment in each of the other women’s lives as if it was actually her living through each of their experiences. At the risk of flattening the specific lived experience of each woman, the surreal imagery hints at a sense of a common struggle. That it could be any of us. Regardless of how far along the journey of unshackling yourself from patriarchal chains you may be, Binti coaxes you into empathising with just how heavy these chains can feel, and how they will never disappear as long as another woman is still trapped.