LEAVING AFRICA premiered on Monday, April 27 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For additional screening times, click here.
Friendship and education are values that most societies, whether located here, or around the corner, or around the world, hold high. That’s why Leaving Africa will be easy to love on a universal level.
Okay, so someone who is homophobic or misogynistic might not be absolutely inspired by the two women who lead Leaving Africa. But if you don’t belong to either of those groups, whom this inspirational duo are attempting to fight against by educating men and women in Uganda, you will leave the film with happy tears streaming down your smiling face.
Leaving Africa centres in on Concern for Children and Women Empowerment (or COFCAWE), an organization bent on enlightening people, particularly religious leaders, in Africa about sexual health as well as general practices for equality (think everything from birth control and family planning, to making sure a woman’s voice is heard by her husband). There’s even a sideplot following Daizy, a woman who has directly benefited from the work of COFCAWE, finally finding her voice and empowering herself as a mother and wife after years of being mistreated and misunderstood by the father of her eight children. But what’s truly compelling about Leaving Africa is the tale of the two women behind this effort and their immense love for both each other and their tireless, important work.
Riiitta and Kata have lived together for many years, first coming together after Riitta, a Finnish immigrant to Uganda, convinced Kata, a Ugandan native, to get out of her unsatisfying and damaging marriage and find herself, her drive again. Although the certain homophobic Ugandan leaders might think they are, Riitta and Kata are not a couple, but rather just lifelong friends, confidantes and work partners. They are a united front, standing together at the front of Ugandan classrooms to talk about sexual organs and sexist practices. And they continue to stand, chins up as they say, when other people want to stand in their way.
There are a lot of struggles documented in Leaving Africa, but the one that may be most heartbreaking involves Ritta’s struggle to retain immigration status as outside forces threaten to close COFCAWE down for good. While these two remarkably confident and independent women are generally unmoved by detractors, they buckle when it comes to their relationship, whether that means laughing and singing in joy, or sobbing at the possibility of losing each other forever (or at least for a while). These two are like a real-life, philanthropically motivated Thelma and Louise, going to the edge of the earth for each other and the strong-willed, feminist beliefs they both share.
In that sense, we can think of director Iiris Härmä as that blue Thunderbird, as she provides the vehicle for telling this remarkable story of female friendship and empowerment. She’s there with our leading ladies this entire journey, but knows to let them actually lead this story, rarely interrupting their discussions, their moments, with her own questioning and simply letting them speak frankly and powerfully. She sees this women for who they are, driving forces of life, love and, hopefully, genuine change.
Emily is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here.