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Juwaa Brilliantly Explores Trauma, Filial Bonds And Congolese Nationalism

In his directorial feature debut, Nganji Mutiri weaves an emotive, unfiltered story that probes deep into the nuances of trauma, identity, filial bonds, self-discovery and forgiveness.

Produced by Belgian film company Dancing Dog Productions in 2021, Juwaa is a Belgian feature drama film directed by Congolese-Belgian actor and writer Nganji Mutiri, known for his roles in the Belgian series Salamander (which aired on Netflix) and the Swedish drama series Hassel (available on Amazon Prime). Filmed in Brussels and Kinshasa, the movie stars Edison Anibal, Babetida Sadjo, Claudio Dos Santos, Francisco Yvan Luzemo, Ady Batista, and Mireille Mbayoko Yaba. Mutiri makes an appearance as well.

The story in Juwaa begins with Paul (Mutiri) and Riziki (Sadjo), Congolese journalists who live together as a married couple. They have a son together named Amani (Anibal), but their life is disrupted one night when gunmen, apparently acting on the orders of a minister who was displeased by an article written by Riziki, storm the house. Paul is murdered, Riziki has to flee to Belgium, and Amani is sent to live with his grandmother.

Many years later, mother and son reunite in Brussels, as Amani moves from Congo to complete his education, but a lot has changed around and between them. Riziki has remarried and has become a successful author. Amani has developed a passion for visual arts, no longer loves sports, and has taken up a radical approach to Congolese nationalism. Riziki struggles to forgive herself for being absent during her son’s formative years, and Amani resents his mother for being away for so long. A large wall exists, one that requires more than a few words to pull down, these oscillating emotions captured by the generous deployment of close-up shots to zoom in on their facial expressions and mannerisms.

Rendered in French, Juwaa unfolds as a melting pot of intense emotions, where the two main characters have to face their demons and interrogate the pain that has haunted them for years. Riziki struggles with memories of being sexually assaulted from the night of the break-in, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has her flinching when she is awakened abruptly; this is communicated to audiences via the frequent use of the flashback and flashforward techniques. Beneath all the bravado on the surface, Amani still reels from the abandonment of years past, and his anger management problems affect his relationships with his friend Giga (Luzemo) and his love interest Raina (Batista).

Beyond the emotional core of the story, the film also explores the sociopolitical atmosphere that prevailed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s and early 2000s. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the First Congo War that culminated in the removal of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and millions died in the Second Congo War that lasted from 1998 to 2003. These events are etched deep into Amani’s memory, and they largely inform his fiery brand of nationalism and pan-Africanism, as depicted in his arguments with Giga.

Sadjo and Anibal interpret their roles so beautifully, handing in electrifying performances which capture the landmine that is a strained mother-son relationship. The awkward silences and the incisive dialogue, as well as the scenes where Anibal throws fits of rage and Sadjo’s eyes go lifeless, help to elevate the movie from just another family-themed drama to a masterful story with a lot of emotional depth.

Ultimately, Juwaa is a powerful albeit tragic film that examines the farthest dimensions of love, grief, and healing. Audiences will connect to the palpability of the emotions on display. Nganji Mutiri puts himself to task with his first foray into feature film directing, and he hits the mark with aplomb. Little wonder, then, that this movie has been well-received outside Congolese shores, having been selected for showcases like the 2022 New York African Film Festival, as well as the 2022 Mons International Film Festival in Belgium.