Our writer speaks to Ekwa Msangi about her debut feature Farewell Amor, which explores the pressure of immigration on families, including the loss of a sense of self and home.
Farewell Amor is the debut feature from filmmaker Ekwa Msangi. The film explores how physical separation and the passing of time impacts people and relationships, as well as the tragedy of displacement and how to maintain a sense of self when, in order to survive, the best option might be to fit in.
Farewell Amor, directed and written by Msangi, begins with a family reuniting in the arrivals hall of a New York airport. After 17 years of separation, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is able to bring his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) to New York City where he has been residing. The family became displaced at the end of a war (possibly the Angolan civil war though it’s never referred to by name). As Walter obtains asylum in the US, his family remains in Africa and seeks refuge in Tanzania. It takes almost two decades for the family to be reunited.
I speak with Msangi over Zoom in early December, the tail-end of an unexpectedly difficult year for many. The global pandemic may have overshadowed all other tragedies, but it has not diminished other global issues. More and more people globally are finding themselves displaced. Anti-immigrant sentiment remains a deplorable constant in the west. Farewell Amor touches on an aspect of immigration that isn’t given space in popular media, namely family separation and the lengthy ordeal that often precedes a reunion. “The reasons that [many displaced people’s] home countries are so unliveable has to do with a lot of [western] foreign policies to begin with,” Msangi states. “I don’t believe that there is any person anywhere in the world who would just prefer to leave their home and their loves and their families and everything they know, to go somewhere that’s cold and does not want them.”
Msangi tells me that the film is partly inspired by her aunt and uncle who married in Tanzania in the mid-90s. Soon after their wedding, Msangi’s uncle received a student visa for the US and left Tanzania with every intention of bringing his wife and, at that point, their five-month-old right after him. To this day, Msangi’s aunt and uncle have been stuck in an endless cycle of visa applications, lasting over two decades now. “I was inspired by this, ‘what if’ story,” Msangi recalls. “What if the visas are no longer the issue? I just had this image of my uncle at the arrivals hall at the airport, waiting for my aunt and my cousin. What would he say? What would he be thinking? Would he recognise them? How do you receive the love of your life, after all these years? And what would have changed in your life, too — what would you have to be sweeping away in order to make space for this family to arrive?”
While viewing this film, I found myself reflecting on my family and our histories. I haven’t experienced exactly the type of separation we see in this film, though I’ve witnessed something similar in my extended family. My immediate family and I left Africa together. I have aunts, uncles and cousins that made the journey alone to different parts of the world where they’ve established themselves and a new life. Some family members are still unable to visit the homes they left for reasons that frustrate even the most patient. Immigration is an illogical phenomenon. Many rules and criteria change on the whims of anti-immigrant governments, while individuals wait for so long for the security and relief of certainty.
The longer you’re away, the harder it can be to go back. Perhaps it is easier to want to stay with the memory of “home” and family as it was, and to be hesitant about reuniting with a changed country and changed people. In Farewell Amor, we observe Walter adopt the customs of his new country and struggle to empathise with his wife Esther, who represents what he left behind. After being uprooted from her home and separated from her husband, Esther finds solace and community in the church. Her beliefs provide her with the security and safety she needs but are shown in moments to be at odds with her new adopted home and transformed husband.
People adapt and assimilate, maybe for survival or out of preference for a life different to the one they left. It is almost unavoidable, especially when many western countries enforce assimilation through law or make living difficult if you do not fit in. Culture and individuality are praised when used for entertainment or aesthetic reasons. But in the areas of life that impact livelihood like education and work, personal expression is often limited or punished. As people, we are naturally drawn to the path of least resistance; we can’t judge anyone for doing what they feel they need to do to survive.
Walter has changed in subtle ways, particularly in how he speaks and the food he prepares. Farewell Amor explores the very complex question of what happens when you’re reunited with a person whose memories of you ceased to change from the moment you left? Phone and video calls are too sporadic and distant to provide a complete picture of growth. When you’re not present for those changes a person undergoes with time, you cannot adapt to them. So the people you are reunited with are as familiar as they are strange.
How are strong bonds like those between husband and wife, child and parent impacted by physical separation? Especially when separation divides parties in different social and political environments that impact people’s outlook on life. Personal relationships are hard enough without the added obstacle of separation. Leaving for a life elsewhere is not as simple as raising the money and buying a ticket. Immigration officials and rules will see to that. Msangi points out that many people have approached her to say they did not know this before seeing the film. The formal processes for starting a new life elsewhere, or bringing family once you’ve successfully managed to obtain asylum, is a matter of producing a lot of paperwork and paying a lot of money. After all this, nothing is guaranteed. For many displaced people this formality isn’t an option. The need for safety is urgent. Many take dangerous and life-threatening routes to secure a better life.
Being a young person experiencing a move like the one in Farewell Amor in this day and age is particularly interesting. Sylvia is a hopeful character for me because she seems almost the most equipped to handle this big change, thanks to technology. The internet exposes and allows us to connect with cultures so different from our own via a few clicks. At best, we find ourselves engaging with art (particularly music) and customs or cultures we may never have interacted with otherwise. But if we do, we have the knowledge and insight to be respectful and participate. “I felt very connected to Sylvia’s character in terms of being in a new environment and the culture shock; of being a young person and trying to have your own voice, but not really knowing what your voice is yet,” Msangi explains. “For me [like Sylvia], dance and music was definitely a saving grace. It was a place where I could be really confident and be myself and show myself.”
In Farewell Amor, Msangi tells an important story about an African immigrant family. Despite the heavier implications of the film, it is hopeful and warm. The thing about family bonds, no matter what, is that people mostly find a way to reconnect regardless of the obstacles that may be in the way. “For me, it’s a pleasure to tell authentic stories about my people,” Msangi says. “The whole reason I became a filmmaker was because I grew up in a time on the African continent where I never got to see images of me or the people around me or anything that was familiar. It was all imported stories about other folks. And that didn’t make any kind of sense to me, because I was surrounded by fun, exciting, interesting, creative people all day long.”
“We’re more than just trials and tribulations. The idea of telling stories about our people, not just on the continent, but everywhere in the diaspora, to me is super interesting and exciting.”
Photo Credit: IFC Films / Farewell Amor