Pili (Bello Rashid) is a single mother who lives in rural Tanzania, a country in Eastern Africa, where her husband left some time ago, leaving her with two children and a rather less wanted gift: she is now HIV positive. She is ashamed of her medical status and hides even her medication from her family and friends, not attending the local clinic if she knows someone could twig what is wrong with her health. The pills can help dramatically, but not if they run out and she is too proud or scared to ask for more from her doctor, yet there is a sign of hope when she hears from a local businessman that there's an opportunity for her that could finally make her financially better off...
There is a film industry in Tanzania, they make low budget, shot on video efforts known as Bongo Movies, similar to, say, Nollywood in Nigeria, and as they are largely made in the Swahili language they can travel a fair distance across Eastern and Southern Africa. But Pili was not technically one of those, as though it used Swahili, it was instigated by British filmmakers led by producer-writer Sophie Harman and director-writer Leanne Welham who used a largely British crew to craft a tale that was perhaps more interested in the social message it conveyed than telling its plotline in a more traditional manner, therefore would have most to say to Africans than others.
That said, they obviously had faith in the universality of their project, and the lead performer, a non-professional, offered a focus in a naturalistic fashion without any affectation or melodrama: this was an effortlessly convincing portrait of Tanzanian life as it was lived by many of the population. Indeed, pretty much every actor here was an amateur, plucked from obscurity to essay what amounted to a public information film for those of their fellow countrymen who were in the same position. Not exactly, but you imagine most of them knew someone like Pili if they were not like her themselves, and the AIDS issue was paramount in importance, saying don't keep it a secret.
When we see the knots the heroine must tie herself in to keep her secret while she tries to boost her income by securing a kiosk in town where she desires to sell beauty products, we can understand she making herself jump through hoops totally unnecessarily. If Pili were more honest about her situation, in her own mind as well as with those around her, then she could get along far easier, yet the social stigma for the illness remains a sticking point as she fears being shunned. Her job when we catch up with her is toiling in the fields, part of the nation's agriculture which it relies on, though it was also difficult to ignore the poverty seen everywhere by Welham's camera indicating cash was in short supply, and Pili was by no means unique in her dilemma. The matter in hand was whether she changed.
Did she sink or swim, essentially, and there was a strong echo of something like the Italian neo-realist movement in much that was depicted, wrangling a simple but resonant drama out of real life that we could perceive as accurate, though not without a few narrative tricks to keep the lead character's troubles compelling. As Pili suffers a nightmare of a day, with everything going wrong, we wonder if this is going the route of The Bicycle Thief and the conclusion will be bleak, but it didn't quite unfold that way, leaning on an irony born of clearing up the kind of pressure a single mother, any woman in a vulnerable situation, really, can endure in circumstances where if you do not have the support of men, then no matter how many other women assist you, you will still have to be placed in a position of exploitation by the males who pull the strings and wield the power. Much to chew over, then, in a simple enough account that made a virtue of its authenticity by not dressing the drama up any more than needed. You did feel as if you had learned something, but crucially, not that you had been lectured at. Music by Tim Morrish.