A Marriage Story
“By her eyes she clung to the world, as by her nails she clung to the sheet, so that she might not be engulfed. ‘Live! Live!’”
Watching Jide Tom Akinleminu’s When a Farm Goes Aflame and witnessing his mother’s resilient, yet heartbreakingly inefficacious fight against a virulent cancer reminds me of these lines from Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death, a book she wrote while witnessing the slow passing of her mother—also succumbing to cancer. When a Farm Goes Aflame, too, is a personal dialogue with illness and mortality, but layered with an interrogation of ideas of family, love, and relationships, as we know it.
The film takes off from Akinleminu’s earlier film Portrait of a Lone Farmer where an exploration of the filmmaker’s parents’ long-distance marriage uncovers a secret life of deceit, lies, and unfaithfulness. Through When a Farm Goes Aflame, Akinleminu opens up a portal to a part of his father’s life that he had been unaware of for decades, forming acquaintances with members of another family his father shares with another woman. The film is as much a quest to uncover this hidden bloodline as a means of reaching out, mending heartbreaks, and finding peace. For a theme that could easily fall into the traps of cheap sentimentalisation or take a salacious gossip-like tone, When a Farm Goes Aflame emerges as an extremely sensitive and human portrayal of a situation that leaves the filmmaker heartbroken and confused; both emotions he doesn’t shy away from expressing.
The way in which Akinleminu situates the site of his mother’s ageing body as the point of focus, is dexterous. Through letters and photos from her personal archives, he reconstructs a past defined by energy and good health; something that her present struggle with cancer is slowly gnawing away at.
Whether it is the African socio-cultural practice of polyamory or the codified legalities of divorce as is defined by the Western world, the collateral is always the female body. Akinleminu’s mother, Grete’s body navigates the expanse of the two seemingly disparate worlds of Denmark and Nigeria—withstanding heat, fatigue, and the fears of an impending war. At an age where her body finally demands rest, there emerges the unfolding of her husband’s secret which manifests itself as a debilitating heartbreak but also a recurrent, rare cancer. The body of another woman—that of Bunmi’s, Akinleminu’s half brother, mother—lies at the mercy of a patriarchy championed by Nigerian society’s demands for a male offspring from Akin, the filmmaker’s father. The women’s bodies are essentially a means of production, posing as narrative difficulties when forced to define themselves beyond their producing capabilities.
“I find myself in the middle of a system between black and white, Europe and Africa, love and expectations, culture and politics,” writes the filmmaker. As his film so beautifully posits, these dualities are often mythologies that cultures like to build around women’s bodies. Bunmi narrates his mother’s story while Akinleminu’s gaze resurrects a semblance of a past, in his attempts at making his mother’s life make sense. Grete’s hair thins, her body becomes frailer against the dull colours of Denmark skies. One almost hears a tired, soft refrain: ‘Live! Live!’