Iiris Härmä: Leaving Africa

A bit into the beginning of the film I said to myself: OMG, is this a film where they are going to talk the whole way through! Of course I understood that the filmmakers had to make the viewer agree to ”where” and ”why” and ”who”. Who the characters are, their relationship, their mission in Uganda – in other words to give information necessary for the further development of a story that grows smoothly and slowly as the rythm of life does in the country where it takes place. But that much talking?

I have often thought about openings of a creative non-journalistic documentary film like this as a take-off in a flight. Sometimes you feel it takes ages before you are up there, where there is a flow,  waiting for the turbulences (the conflicts) to come, where you can move on.

The turbulences arrive in ”Leaving Africa”, the talking goes on and I arrive to love what I see and hear from two lovely women, Riitta Kujala from Finland and Catherine Othieno, called Kata, from Uganda. And I get to love to stay with them at the main location of the film, their veranda outside the house, where they talk and where Kata dances while Riitta smokes her cigarettes, coughs and reads. And where they have been living together since 1993.

Riitta is about to retire and return to Finland after 27 years on mission in Uganda. Ugandan Catherine is the executive director of the Finnish ngo supported organisation Cofcawe that does family planning for grown ups and health and sex education for children. She is the one to carry on with the work. If she is allowed to do so – problems appear from the authorities: the two are accused of promoting lesbianism and homosexuality and their permission to go on with Cofcawe is taken away.

But before that happens you have seen them in action in classes where both women and men take part. You hear comments from some of the students and you meet wonderful Catholic Daizy, who is 34 years old and has 8 children! (She is the one on the photo together with Catherine in a radio programme, where she tells that she has started to use birth control thanks to Cofcawe).

Our aim is ”to help women come out of poverty”, says Riitta, who also nails the problems of fertile and ressource rich Uganda down to be a ”gender based poverty”.

Built up in a classic way the conflict is introduced, the efforts are made to get back the permission to operate in moments that are – as they express it – of ”constant uncertainty” and ”emotional stress”. They get it back and Riitta can prepare to leave for her retirement in snowy Finland.

The relationship between the two is beautifully described through the many situational scenes around the house and when they work ”on location”. The story of Catherine who was abused as a child and later on raped, told through her voice-off, a bit heavy and especially in the beginning used solution, probably the only one possible, is very strong as is her emotional gratitude towards Riitta, who got to know her back in 1986.

Riitta, well, I have met so many of these no-bullshit Finnish women, she is one of them, clear in speech, chain-smoking and totally committed to what she is doing in a homophobic country. You can only love her!

Objections? Could there have been more with fabulous looking Daizy, the mother of 8, who in a scene teaches her daughters what it is to have periods? Could the filmmakers have used less music, which sometimes works well but also in some sequences are what I normally characterise as ”putting too much sugar on” – a desease in modern documentary. There are so much emotional power in many scenes between the two that music is not needed. And there is one small tear too much for me in the film, whereas the emotional outburst of Kata in the office after the permission to carry on has been given is astonishing and unique describing her reaction so much different to the Nordic usual hugging of Riitta. Cultural differences and yet a beautiful friendship full of love and understanding. 

Finland, 2015, 84 mins.


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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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