Nowhere in Africa (2001)
When I heard about The Home Sweet Home Blogathon, I knew I had to participate. Homes and families have always been such an important theme in films, and it is one of my favourite topics. I previously talked about the meaning of homes in my post “Housing Films: 99 Homes (2014) and House of Sand and Fog (2003)”, and this is another opportunity to focus on families in films, the loyalty that binds them together despite hardships they endure. Directed by Caroline Link, Nowhere in Africa is a German-language film and a winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is perfect for this blogathon because it focuses on a family reunion and separation, on familial misunderstandings and hope, as well as on finding home in a new place. It is based on a memoir by Stefanie Zweig that tells of a life of one Jewish family that had to emigrate to Kenya in 1938 because of Nazi persecutions in their native Germany. The family, mother Jettel (Juliane Kohler), father Walter (Merab Ninidze) and their small daughter Regina (Lea Kurka), settle on a farm and soon make friends with their cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo). They initially have very few ideas of what really lies in store for them on the new soil. This film, which has beautiful production design and a feel of a real life lived daily, is something much more than one’s usual story of a new settler or a story of the WWII told from a perspective of someone living in Africa. The adaptation is a touching tale of a family enduring frightful separations and hopeful reunions through the years, staying true to their family bond despite immense hardships. It is a film about the meaning of home and identity, an important story to tell about the need to welcome and to cherish people’s differences.
Director Caroline Link has a talent for telling stories through the perspective of children, and Nowhere in Africa is an excellent example. Nowhere in Africa unfolds through the eyes of one little girl who is both bewildered and frightened of having to travel from her home in Germany to a distant country so suddenly. Regina says in the film: “I thought of chocolate and how mummy had said that we were now poor and poor children don’t get chocolate”. The year is 1936, and Jettel and Regina find themselves in Nairobi, Kenya, from where they have to go some distance by car before seeing a farm on which Walter works. The fitting score in these scenes underlines the urgency of their situation: their need to leave Germany as soon as possible and at whatever cost because they are Jewish and already face immense discrimination and unfair treatment on their native soil.
Since the film is partly based on a true story, the story feels realistic and, instead of a linear plot which moves logically to one big finale, the film is replete with episodes from the family’s life, preferring to show internal dilemmas and “quiet” conflicts, instead of big melodramatic scenes. The situation for the Redlich family in Kenya is soon becoming clear. They are in a completely foreign environment, which is different climatically, culturally and linguistically from their native land. The family faces cultural shock and misunderstandings. Besides, there are dangers abound, from hostile environmental elements, including animals, to malaria and poverty. Here, the film demonstrates the differences in adaptation between Regina and her parents. While Regina’s mother, Jettel, refuses to face to the reality of living in rural Africa and brought with her from Germany an exquisite china set and an elegant nightgown (instead of an icebox), her daughter Regina seems to adapt quickly, learning new language, running barefoot and making best friends with cook Owuor. In this vein, Jettel is on her own personal journey in the story to realise the meaning of a different life elsewhere and to try to assimilate into her new environment. She completes her own “circle of knowledge”, realising by the end that “some words lose meaning [in Africa], and that a more “rustic” way of life is not necessarily less valid or happy. Jettel’s relationship with her husband also undergoes a transformation, and in some way, Nowhere in Africa is also a tale about a crumbling marriage and attempts at repairs: “One person always loves more. It makes it difficult [because] one who loves more is vulnerable”.
The highlight of the film must also be Regina’s touching friendship with the family’s cook Owuor. Despite their initial cultural and linguistic barriers, the duo become great friends fast, and the film emphasises through their unbreakable bond the idea that differences are nothing where friendship, love and devotion exist. No matter what country someone comes from and what language they speak, they all understand and have experienced love, friendship, hardship and a desire for simple happiness. Our shared humanity and kindness knows no boundaries and should not differentiate between origins and languages.
Unfortunately, Nowhere in Africa is also a film that have scenes that end abruptly only for others to begin, and it would have benefited from more fluid editing, especially since some scenes feel “forced” and some dialogues – a little out of place.
Nowhere in Africa may be a long film (running more than two hours), but it is a constantly fascinating tale to watch. It often unfolds like a real life being lived and has some magnificent shots. It is definitely one of the most remarkable German-language films ever made. 8/10
Again, this review was written as part of The Home Sweet Home Blogathon hosted by Realwegiemidget Reviews and Taking Up Room – see other exciting entries here and here! See also this list for my 25 past entries to other blogathons.