Homeward review – pan-Africanism, deportation and Kurdish folk songs

This collection of short films from the online documentary platform True Story has home and exile as its central themes – though the needle errs towards the latter across these five often mournful works.

The longest, at 37 minutes, Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell’s Breakfast in Kisumu is a seemingly affable conversation with her Kenyan father, Rok Ajulu, as he recounts his 20-year odyssey from being a student in Bulgaria to academia in the UK and pan-African activism in Lesotho and beyond. But it becomes clear that he sacrificed family for the collective political struggle, and this is his estranged daughter’s attempt at recovering their relationship and her Luo heritage. Ajulu-Bushell collages their conversation with scraps of archival and found-style footage, but flips into a sobering formalism for a soothing final rapprochement with father, who died in 2016.

There’s a Loachian weight to Hydebank, directed by Ross McClean, in which toughness and tenderness butt heads in a young offenders’ prison in Northern Ireland. Ryan is serving a 10-year sentence for an unspecified violent crime – one which, judging by the level of remorse he expresses, was pretty violent indeed. But he finds solace in looking after the institution’s flock of sheep, something that enrages some of other prisoners, who scream “sheep-shagger” over the walls. As we watch Ryan deliver, suckle and groom the lambs, among these uncompromising animal realities is the possibility of connection, love and redemption. Shot in stark floodlit compositions, all of life seems to be inside this paddock.

“Thalys babies”, conceived via medically assisted procreation in Belgium for single or lesbian French woman barred from such procedures by law in their own country, are the subject of Charlotte Müller’s No Man’s Land. Accompanying these biological wayfarers on the Paris-Brussels Thalys express train (hence the name), she lingers on their trepidation and solitude. But there’s a vagueness to the film – it’s not immediately clear that Müller is herself one of the women depicted – which is presumably meant to mesh these experiences into a universal condition, but which somehow holds us at a distance.

Bircan Birol’s My Name is Anik is, like Breakfast in Kisumu, is another crosscultural recovery mission but this time one conducted with tetchy humour. The Scottish-based, Turkish-speaking director returns to Istanbul to learn Kurdish from her grandmother. Birol sees it as a way of continuing a legacy; her elder questions what future use it could have. Insisting on being buried with childhood locks of Birol’s hair she has kept, brought to tears by Kurdish folk songs, the grandmother’s heart is in the past. The pair end up squabbling on a park bench. A mnemonic Post-it with “dolap” (cupboard) written on it falls off. The takeaway: language, and culture, don’t stick where you want them to.

Most compelling of the crop is Motherland, a heartbreaking set of interviews by Ellen Evans with black Britons either deported back to Jamaica or, in the case of one Windrusher, refused re-entry to Britain. Brisk sweeps of their new surroundings – an abandoned fort, chaotic Kingston streets, spartan living rooms – sum up the cultural alienation and depression the UK’s new immigration regime has foisted on them. One young Mancunian in exile says: “I served my prison sentence, my full time … and one day they came for me and said: ‘You’re going.’ Just like that.”. Make no mistake: this is incarceration, too.

Homeward is released on 18 June on True Story.


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