Standing open-armed in the JFK airport, Angolan immigrant Walter is reunited with his family after 17 years of separation. After such a long time apart, they have become strangers to each other, each learning to cope and adapt to the distance. “Farewell Amor,” the debut film of writer and director Ekwa Msangi, authentically captures the consequences of such a separation, one that tears apart the foundation of a family.
As director Msangi stated in a brief interview with the Duke Chronicle prior to the premiere, the film asks us, “What would the family have had to turn into in those years in order to survive the distance?” Msangi was inspired by her own aunt and uncle, who had been separated for 25 years due to visa and immigration issues. With a past marred by political violence and civil war in Angola, the family begins to redefine their roles and their definition of love after 17 years.
For Esther (Zainab Jah), the mother of the family, religion becomes a source of solace and healing. She becomes fanatical, faithful to both the faith and the community of worshippers she discovered. And her devotion to her family shares similarly fervent tendencies — she works incessantly to rebuild the family she waited 17 years to have. For father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), without the love he had in Angola, he is drawn into an affair. When his family arrives in the United States, he quickly realizes that, despite his best efforts, he has yet to move on from his past romance.
Walter also continues to seek out experiences from his youth, like his love for dancing and music, in order to make peace with the emotional burden of being torn from his homeland. Their daughter, Slyvia (Jayme Lawson), turns to similar hobbies as her father, attempting to build a career in dance despite her mother’s objections. She remains stuck in her idealized father, one she had imagined all her life.
Sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, those emotional crutches soon come to a head. Esther begins to notice things that seemingly indicate Walter’s infidelity, like his sudden ability to cook or his ex’s forgotten set of sheets. Before long, her marriage and even her religious faith is called into question.
Similarly, Walter’s shock at his wife’s devotion shows the growing distance between the two of them, one that extends beyond the obvious emotional toll of separation. From their first night together, where he notes his wife’s fervent praying, to their first church service together, Walter is overcome with both a sense of loss and disappointment, longing for the Esther who would dance with him on the beach.
Meanwhile, Slyvia is stuck with the difficulty of adjusting to an American school and a desire to explore passions outside her mother’s dream of her becoming a doctor. She soon joins an after-school dance program, using movement to explore the roots of her parents’ relationship.
What once united Esther and Walter seems deep in the past. A passionate love of dance and adventure has seemingly left Esther as Walter is stuck in the past excitements of Angola. “Farewell Amor,” in consequence, chronicles the changing dynamic of love. Without the city they once knew and the passions they had in their youth, Walter and Esther’s love seems to weaken and fluctuate. They have become foreign to each other — physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Msangi beautifully captures the perspective of each family member as they attempt to redefine their expectations for family and for love. The movie is divided in such a way that the audience follows the experiences of each as they interact with their literal and figurative new world. It breaks down each veneer to expose the troubling reality, the struggle to accept that what once was is now gone.
I was drawn to the cyclical nature of the family’s history. Unknowingly following in her parents’ footsteps, Slyvia begins mixing the dance styles from her home with American moves. Her blended dancing mimics the new dynamic for her parents, one coming from 17 years in Angola and one spending his time in the United States. It seems to provide hope for a united future, in spite of current uncertainties.
Its relevance to the political situation today is critical. Msangi takes the divisive matter of immigration into the structure of a family, describing not just how such a division creates tension but impacts the roots of a family. “Farewell Amor” takes the news articles, the facts and the statistics and grants them a real-world relevance, a truth behind the numbers. It is a story of survival wrought with the undertones of political unrest and uncertainty. Above all, through this film, Msangi grants a human voice to an increasingly universal narrative.
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