★★★☆☆

Bookmarked by static long takes of three people, firstly in the immensity of JFK’s arrivals hall and then a cramped, one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, there is a wonderful balance to the construction of Farewell Amor. Between these intimate moments, Ekwa Msangi takes us full circle with the story of the difficulties faced by an Angolan family reunited in New York after seventeen years. 

The US-born, Kenyan-raised director’s feature-length debut is told with honesty, determination and grace. Allowing each of its subjects an equal say, a shared point of view in how to navigate the disorienting prospect of adjusting to life in one of the world’s largest cities, they must find their own way of getting to know one another again, as well as their new surroundings, after so many years of enforced separation.   

Driven apart by the devastation of the Angolan Civil War, the family unit is thrust back together with similar abruptness, but contrary to its title, Farewell Amor begins with a welcome. Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) greets his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), and daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), at the airport as they arrive in America after their immigration papers are finally granted. His gift of a teddy bear for his now teenage daughter is well-intentioned, but a clear sign of just how out of touch he is.

With each figure allotted roughly half an hour, the plot’s triptych begins with Walter. Having spent this long period in New York alone, he has driven a cab to make ends meet and to be able to send some money back to Esther and Sylvia in Dar es Salaam, the pair having fled the conflict to the Tanzanian city. Other than the awkward embraces of the opening moments, cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole captures the family members often in isolation as the barriers of physical closeness and intimacy prevent them from sharing the frame – at least initially.  

This discomfort and nervous glances between them beg the question of whether they will be able to rebuild, and when it soon becomes clear that Walter had engaged in a relationship during his time alone the stakes are set even higher. Conflicted by his obligation and desire to rekindle the prodigal love of his family, and residual feelings for nurse Linda (Nana Mensah), Mwine’s performance has the greatest conflict and nuance. However, learning that his daughter has inherited his love for dance gives Walter ground on which to build.

But when we circle back once more to the airport and forward – this time in Sylvia’s shoes – we see that her anxiety at this monumental change, wariness of a father she barely remembers and longing for friends at home are taking their toll. The offer of friendship and participation in a dance competition by DJ (Marcus Scribner) gives Sylvia purpose, but sets her against her mother’s strict religious beliefs. And by no means singing from the same hymn sheet as her husband and daughter, Esther must reconcile her own faith and principles with the reality of American life, whilst also coming to terms with the knowledge of Walter’s extra-marital relationship.  

Knowing that she must bend but not break, Jah’s performance as Esther is one of steadfast resolve that shows signs of fraying at the edges. And in what is first ever screen turn, Lawson is a revelation as Sylvia. Taking to her role with the same daring she exhibits in the high-pressure third act dance-off, she is most certainly one to watch for the future. The same applies to Msangi, whose tender portrayal of the immigrant experience is an impressive, heartfelt debut.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63