US filmmaker puts Lesotho on map

Inverting the search-for-fortune-in-Jozi story, The Forgotten Kingdom is a slow meditation on the Basotho people of Lesotho, writes Theresa Smith.

When Andrew Mudge's brother was sent to Lesotho as a member of the American Peace Corp, the family had to look up the country on a map to figure out where it was.

The New Yorker was so fascinated by the idea that a country existed that he'd never heard of, that he simply had to visit 10 years ago and then he spent several years travelling back and forth, determined to make a movie about this lost kingdom.

While he'd started studying anthropology, he never did finish his degree, as he kept on cutting classes to make movies and finally succumbed to the lure of the big screen to make short films.

"I feel like I never had a plan B. I don't know what else I'd do at this point," he said about making films.

At first, he wanted to make a documentary about his discovery of Lesotho, but this morphed into a feature around a young man's return home to bury his father. The trip turns into a rediscovery of Atang's (played by Zenzo Ngcobo) roots, which gave Mudge an opportunity to show how people in the most remote parts of the southern African country live.

"It reminded me of the Old West, Lesotho - these villages where people travelled on horseback, with blankets strapped to their backs, moving through the snow, and shepherds with their sheep.

"It reminded me of an old place lost in time.

"I thought, the juxtaposition between Joburg and that, there was a really great story," said Mudge in an interview in Durban where the film made its African debut last week at the Durban International Film Festival.

The principal cast are all professional actors from Joburg, but the rest were cast from villages as the shoot travelled around, with almost two months of production days across two seasons.

Lesotho takes on a mystical quality as Mudge incorporates magical realism, though his anthropology background stopped him going the whole "noble savage" route, so often used by outsiders.

"I tried to never allow myself to indulge in what didn't feel right. If nothing felt authentic, then there you go."

He spent a lot of time consulting on the constantly rewritten script, checking with Sotho people how they'd deal with specific problems, learning the cadence and rhythm of the language, even going so far as learning to speak Sotho himself. Though he admits four years on, he's totally rusty: "I took my time with it. I had the luxury of having a lot of years to get ready."

The pacing of the film slows down from Joburg's bustle to a more lyrical, dreamy, meditative tone as the Atang character rediscovers the place of his childhood.

"Me not being from here, everything is so new. Coming to Lesotho, maybe it was that I wasn't bored by it. I had the privilege of being an adult who was suddenly, 'whoa, look at this place', and we could use that creative energy and excitement of never seeing or experiencing anything like this."

Mudge will return to Lesotho in December to screen the film, with the help of the American embassy, to all the people who helped make the movie and at present he is travelling the global film festival circuit, with The Forgotten Kingdom already picking up three audience awards at various US film festivals.

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