Lesotho is a hard, cold, country. Its lowest river valley bottom is at a higher elevation than the summit of Ben Nevis, and the land climbs from that up to the highest peak in the Drakensberg mountains: the highest point in Africa south of the Rwandan highlands. Lesotho makes a substantial portion of its income by catching clouds on those mountains, and selling the precipitation to thirsty South Africa.
Andrew Mudge, directing his own script, uses a lot of “golden hour” shooting to give THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM a glow. Scrubby upland farms take on a golden sepia tone, indigo skies are ruffled with those pale grey clouds, and the bright, bold designs on the Basotho blankets shine like beacons. Atang Mokoenya (Zenzo Ngqobe, a South African TV star moving into film) makes a reluctant, halting journey back to this kingdom that he forgot as a child, after his father moved them away as economic migrants. His task is to bury his father in his homeland. Mokoenya lives as a Jo’burg grifter, in a life that wouldn’t look particularly out of place in an early Scorsese film: tough young guys in a loud, urgent urban pressure cooker. He visits the astonishing squalor of the township where his father has been living and, home-made coffin in tow, montages his way back to the Kingdom, guided by visions of his dead father. After the funeral he meets up with a childhood friend Dineo (Nozipho Nkelemba, also a young veteran of SA telly, and one to watch out for), now the schoolteacher.
FORGOTTEN KINGDOM avoids both cynicism and sentimentality…
Mokoenya falls for Dineo, her father (a magisterial Jerry Mofokeng—CRY THE BELEOVED COUNTRY, LORD OF WAR, TSOTSI) will have none of it, they separate, the find their way back together. Mokoenya attempts to return to the urban hustle but the city turns against him, leaving no choice but to embark on a Hero’s Journey back into the country. Along the way he forms an odd-couple partnership with a sparky, mouthy, precociously wise orphan (Lebohang Ntsane, an untrained Lesotho kid with great natural talent). They travel, they bicker, they help and are helped. The film–makers seem to think that this is a supporting role: the character doesn’t even seem to have a name. They want us to focus on the love story (it is touching), on Mokoenya’s growth (it is impressive), on Dineo and her father and sister and their drama (it is powerful), but as the orphan guides Mokoenya through rural Lesotho and teaches him how to be Basotho again, he provides some backbone to a story which would otherwise risk being a little too much the conventional boy/girl lost/found it’s–a–long–way–home schtick.
Lesotho has problems: almost half the population are in absolute poverty and about a quarter of them are HIV positive, and that’s an especially grim combination. Many of the men do exactly what Mokoenya’s father did and work in South Africa as miners, returning only to take up permanent residence in a more personal hole in the ground. FORGOTTEN KINGDOM avoids both cynicism and sentimentality, at least in dealing with these concerns. They are there, straightforwardly part of the story. The characters acknowledge, or come to acknowledge them, and this is part of the journey.
Mudge clearly has enormous affection and respect and sympathy for Lesotho and its people, and that shines through, elevating what is in many respects a fairly conventional, if very competent, drama. FORGOTTEN KINGDOM is a love story and a love letter to a somewhat overlooked corner of the world, and all the more satisfying for that.