English Title: Mystery Mountain
Country of Origin: Malawi
Studio: Firstwave Pictures
Director: Villant Ndasowa
Producer(s): Villant Ndasowa
Screenplay: Mwai Kasamale
Cinematographer: Yamie Lozi
Art Director: Peter Mazunda
Editor: Mwai Kasamale
Runtime: 30 minutes
Volume: African / Nigerian
Mystery Mountain is a docu-drama about strange disappearances of people on Mount Mulanje, towering over 3000 meters above sea level in Southern Africa, Malawi. Mulanje Mountain is one of the most remarkable tourist attractions in Malawi with a diversity of endemic plant and animal resources. This highest peak on the massif, Sapitwa, literally meaning no go area, has claimed many lives.
The story follows Linda Pronk, a Dutch Lab Technician working at Mulanje Hospital who decides to ascend the peak alone at about 9:00 am on 12 September, 2003, after ignoring advice from friends and guides. She does not return. From the dawn of 14 September, guides and villagers search for her despite the foggy and windy weather. Her brother in the Netherlands is informed and a search team with professional sniffer dogs is flown in but there is no trace of Linda.
In 1943 and 1992 Patrick Phewa and Kubwalo Mwabvi from the surrounding Mulanje communities, respectively disappeared mysteriously but were dumb upon return to their homes few months later, making investigations on what transpires up the Sapitwa end in wild guesses.
The docu-drama Mystery Mountain, released in 2007, is a breakthrough in the exposure of the secret tales about sacred places associated with taboo, witchcraft, sorcery and magic. The director, Villant Ndasowa, is a young Malawian woman, born and bred in Mulanje and determined to pave her professional path in cinema by challenging the shroud around the very mountain area in which she grew up.
The parties involved in the search for the Dutch expatriate concentrate on two contrasting views to find a logical explanation to her disappearance. A psychiatric nurse, Immaculate Chamangwana and a local villager, Fainess, are interviewed.
The local Lomwe and Mang’anja natives explain the disappearance as supernatural. Linda has trespassed into the realm of spirits. A sacrifice is offered: pouring libation while reciting incantations should appease the vexed ancestral spirits who, albeit seldom, might release the missing person. In Linda’s case, nothing can be done. The intrusion of the sacred grove by Dutch search dogs and a rumbling helicopter is sacrilege of the highest magnitude to the spirits’ eternal abode.
The scholars’ scientific version suggests that Linda might have strayed to other parts of the mountain in the chronic bad weather where the cloud descends to obscure visibility for extended periods. A laboratory experiment displays that temperatures can indeed be very low. This same scholarly finding also justifies the presence of fresh food, contradicting the traditional belief that spirits leave the food there as a bait to catch trespassers.
The docu-drama is a fair representation of the beliefs of the people around the mountain and that of people who share a different view. It impartially, and without offence, lays facts and opinions as suggested without taking sides but leaving the crucial decision to the audience. The songs and music played in the documentary complement the audience’s picture of what a spiritual realm looks like. The narrator’s voice commands attention as it changes tone, to create a concrete mood for the feature. The involvement of the viewers in the story by letting them interpret events for themselves makes it a believable adventure rather than a myth so that one day, if the need to climb the peak arises, people must first seek permission from the spirits or suffer a mysterious fate. That people disappear on the mountain is no longer a mystery. The mystery is what kind of fate awaits them.
Although the documentary has succeeded in a number of ways, it also has shortfalls. The angle through which the plot unfolds limits the explanation of exact tales.
For example, the story is told through Melissa Eveleigh who is not a Malawian. Her role as the protagonist in the docu-drama limits the script writer and producer, Villant Ndasowa, from emphasizing the truth about the existence of the spirits. She ceases to be the Malawian who truly believes in the myths of the land but takes a neutral position. This leaves the audience in suspense. The arrangement of evidence is not chronological. The offering of food sacrifices to the spirits is presented in two resembling scenes. In addition, the dramatization of mountain spirits by young dancing actors diminishes the seriousness with which the spirit concept is conceived.
The central idea of this docu-drama could be construed as superstition. This is evidenced by Villant’s use of more than one story to emphasize the local people’s beliefs and only one to portray the scientific view. The apparent trust in the scientific explanation undermines the notion that the sacrifices offered to the spirits give to the victims’ families the hope of seeing again any lost kin or member of the society.
Author of this review: Peter Mitunda